Bette/Cavett **1/2

What a great idea for a play.  Take one of America’s most iconic talk shows and create a verbatim piece of theatre based on one of its most infamous moments: a full hour with screen legend Bette Davis.  Unfortunately, what could have been great theatre is instead nothing more than a misguided production saved by two good performances and some interesting brushes with nostalgia.

Dick Cavett is a legend in America.  Cavett’s ability to book top names and knack for asking tough questions not only earned him a huge audience but also the respect of many of his interviewees.  His shows may not have been aired in the UK, but since many clips from his show have been used in popular films he is surely a recognisable figure.

Here, Cavett is played by Mark Prendergast.  He looks and sounds nothing like the actual man, but he does radiate with a similar charm and warmth.  He creates a believable repartee with his famed guest and is able to switch between interviewer and showman with ease.

But this is Bette Davis’s show, and here Davis is played by actor Grant Smeaton.  Wearing the same costume as Davis did in the actual interview, Smeaton plays the role remarkably straight.  His performance is an affectionate tribute and does not come across as either sarcastic or jokey.  He’s playing a character who happens to be a woman, and he does it well and with lots of confidence.

It is unfortunate that the production itself does not feel remotely as confident as the performances.  The action is broken into segments, each covering a different topic from Davis’s life and punctuated by the airing of a period commercial.  The first few segments work well and are full of good humour and energy.  Sadly, the second half’s segments begin to fall apart, coming across at best as distracted, disorganised and at times desperate.  You know a production is in trouble when the commercials, meant to simply add to the nostalgia, end up saving the performance from disaster.

Bette/Cavett is an entertaining distraction.  It has good performances from its cast and a collection of commercials that amuse and horrify, but it lacks the punch or pizzazz that the actual recordings contain.  Those who go will probably enjoy themselves, but anyone with an interest in either old Hollywood or Davis’ life will be far better served by watching the originals, be it on You Tube or on DVD.

Sidebar.  I reviewed this Wednesday night, the day after the press performance. 

Bette/Cavett performs at the Tron at 19.45.  It has a running time of 60 minutes and runs until October 10.


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