Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies, written and performed by Jessica Sherr, and directed by Karen Carpenter relates the turbulent career of Bette Davis against the background of her relationship with her parents, her four marriages and numerous affairs, and bitter feuds with other actresses in Hollywood.
The set is busy, filled with pictures, memorabilia, dresses and a half drunk bottle of whisky. From the moment Sherr bursts onto the stage she embodies Davis and her vibrant personality through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards which loop around to relate her entire life in miniature.
It is the night of Vivian Leigh’s Oscar win for Gone with the Wind, and Bette Davis has left the ceremony in a temper. Using the excuse of needing to be up early to begin filming for Juarez in order to save face, Davis takes various phone calls from people shocked she has walked out of the Oscars, but always insists that she is fine and has no animosity towards Leigh.
Rehearsing for Juarez, Davis soon realises the parallels between her experience in Hollywood and the Habsburg empress’ life. Praying for the strength to survive Hollywood, you see the different sides of Bette Davis, the one she shows to the world, the one she is behind closed doors and the one she is to her friends and family.
Regular phone calls from her mother, Ruthie and other Hollywood icons add structure to the non-linear narrative and allow hints of other people’s stories to be brought into the piece. Defensive over her craft, and a true perfectionist at heart, we see how Davis became the woman she is and why she strives to do the best in every role she takes on, whether that’s a despondent heroin addict or her real life performance as the defendant in her court battle with Warner Bros.
Depictions of her complex relationships with her mother and father hint at how these affect her romantic relationships. Desperate for affection and approval, her interactions with men are often messy and fraught with emotional conflicts affected by her studio experiences.
Sherr’s performance is excellent, and you can really believe you are seeing an inside look at the formidable actress’ life. Changing costume on stage adds shape to the story as Sherr narrates a complex narrative which goes back to the beginning of Davis’ career before moving past the present moment and into the future.
Sherr convincingly changes her voice and body as she becomes the other people in Davis’ life. Exploring the differences between theatre acting and film acting and Davis’ determination to succeed and be taken seriously as a character actress in spite of everything that Hollywood throws at her, is a nice nod to the current state of the current state of theatre and its fight for survival.
Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies is a funny piece of theatre which tears into the many faults hidden in the complexities of Hollywood’s golden age. Exposing the misogyny and ageism which still courses through the film industry today, this is the unfortunate story of a woman who stood up for herself and hurt her career by doing so. After giving everything to Hollywood and getting little in return, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? creates a kernel of hope against the backdrop of that Oscar evening when Leigh took home the golden statuette. The non-linear nature of the piece highlights the ups and downs that can happen in life and exposes the darker side of the glamourous world of Hollywood.
Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies is being streamed by Edinburgh Fringe until 30th August 2021. Tickets are available here https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/bette-davis-ain-t-for-sissies
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 22nd August 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★