Theatre review: Bette/Cavett


AT THE start of this entertaining head-to-head, chat show host Dick Cavett (Mark Prendergast) muses upon the distinction between an "actor" and a "star", finally plumping for "superstar" as the only term befitting Bette Davis.

Perched opposite, Grant Smeaton doesn't so much play the part of Davis as simply try to project as much of that superstar stateliness as possible. The result is a beguiling curio, seemingly devised and directed by Smeaton as an unadorned tribute to a Hollywood luminary in her own words, fondly harking back to an era when celebrities gamely opened up about their lives without anything to plug.

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Simultaneously, it evokes a strange, second-hand nostalgia for a meeting of minds most of its audience won't have experienced first time around.

The Dick Cavett Show never aired in Britain, so this recreation of Davis's iconic 1971 appearance feels both familiar and fresh, eliciting real whoops and applause from many in tonight's "studio", with distance only restored momentarily with the sight of a man knowingly crossing and uncrossing his 63-year-old woman's legs. Prendergast's deference feels more genuine than the genuine article, and although the stakes aren't Frost/Nixon exactly, he elicits remarkable candour.

With only the occasional mannerism exaggerated and the baleful stare of those legendary eyes, Smeaton affectionately embodies rather than impersonates, remaining entirely faithful to Davis's transcript. Reservoirs of disdain are expressed in fleeting reference to Joan Crawford; there's the tale of a near-fatal wasp sting in Scotland, and the battles to wrest control of her career from the domineering studios have endlessly tragic glamour. Glowing allusion to her daughter carries poignancy given their subsequent estrangement, and the play draws considerable levity from routinely cutting to some hilariously dated commercials.

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