By Isabella Fraser
Bette Davis was a tour de force, a feisty Hollywood actress who won not one, but two Oscars out of ten nominations. In Jessica Sherr’s one-woman show, we meet Davis on the night she fails to win Oscar number three, when instead Vivien Leigh wins for the role Davis turned down in Gone With the Wind. Sherr is not only the performer but also the writer – that this play is a labour of love is clear to see.
Thirties music drifts in the background as Sherr storms into the room. Her Davis is an elegant, dramatic, complicated and fickle creature although slightly lacking in fire at key moments. From some angles, the physical resemblance to Davis is striking; the use of glamorous costume and elaborately styled hair adds to the image of an old-school movie star who knows the power of presence; that appearance was everything. Sherr shimmies as she demonstrates take after take of walking into a room while reminiscing about her past performances.
As Sherr flies around, changing, drinking, smoking and sneering, snippets of Davis’ dialogue underscores the action and is used to maximum effect. Complementing this with popular songs from the time, director Antony Raymond immediately sets the scene for a particular period in Hollywood history.
Raymond’s direction sits well with the challenges of a small stage. The small space could easily work as a metaphor for Davis’s feeling of being trapped, caught between a constantly ringing telephone and a decanter of whisky to escape into. A coat stand, doubling as a stand for Sherr’s costume changes, made a bid for freedom itself when at one point it threatened to fall over. Sherr managed to keep it upright, but such is the strength of the legendary diva that it wouldn’t seem farfetched to consider the spirit of Bette Davis herself may have been causing a little mischief… Indeed, at the end of the performance, Sherr informed the audience that gloves she had been wearing on stage originally belonged to Bette Davis, living on in this incarnation, a genuine piece of Hollywood history.
A good hour of entertainment; the only quibble would be that Sherr has softened Davis too much – her put-downs are funny but heightening her irascibility would be more Davis. Still, if you want to know more about the glamour of Hollywood or if you are a fan of Bette Davis, then Sherr’s show should be very much up your street.
Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies runs until 24 August in Studio 2, the Assembly Rooms at 14.45. Running time is 1 hour.