Bakersfield Mist, Duchess Theatre, London – review

It’s hardly uncommon to see an actor revel in playing an unpalatable character, but seldom do you encounter a pair of them sparring with such enthusiasm as Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid in this two-hander. This is Turner’s first London appearance since her volcanic Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2006, and she seems still to be glorying in the liberation from her longtime scourge of rheumatoid arthritis. As trailer-trash ex-bartender Maude she is positively bullish, using the F-word like a comma and bouncing off the walls of the deliberately overdressed set as well as off McDiarmid. He, in turn, savours every syllable of acidic sarcasm as the arrogant, prissy Lionel, who has flown to California from New York to give his verdict on the authenticity of the painting Maude bought for three bucks in a junk shop and now claims is a Jackson Pollock. It’s such a very McDiarmid role that he disdains even to attempt the accent; writer Stephen Sachs has evidently added a couple of perfunctory extra lines to explain Lionel’s Englishness.

The delight is in the performances rather than the play. Sachs has some so-so ideas about authenticity in art and (inevitably) people, but when he hammers them out they tend towards the trite rather than the profound. He is similarly unimaginative with his plotting: the way to unbutton Lionel is to dose him with whiskey so that he gets positively ratted within 20 minutes, then shrugs it off after another 20. And as sure as Rothko liked red, you know that Maude’s inevitable hidden sorrow will be connected with the photograph she objects so ferociously to Lionel even touching. Still, neither Sachs nor director Polly Teale stretches matters beyond their natural bounds; it is all over in barely an hour and a quarter.

And it is pretty delectable while it lasts, from McDiarmid’s sour smirks and Turner’s bellowing blowsiness to Tom Piper’s set, which looks as if he has taken all the items pruned away in his normally understated designs and shovelled them on to one stage. Although Lionel’s opinion is predictable from the word go, the play itself offers no verdict on the genuineness of the painting (we never even see the front of the canvas). As for the evening, it looks glorious but it ain’t art.

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