Review: Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies (Edinburgh Fringe, online)

The year is 1939. The focus in this one-woman show, produced by Velvet Fox and Mile Square Theatre, and directed by Karen Carpenter, is Bette Davis (“I’ve had more husbands than Oscars”).

Jessica Sherr brings this movie icon to life at her Oscar nomination for Dark Victory. She lost to Vivien Leigh”s legendary Scarlett O’Hara,

Here, her room is dominated by the two Academy Awards she has, a fur stole, dresses in the closet, a photo of her (with William Wyler?), a whisky decanter, summer hat, telephone. Although the play veers into the 1960s and Baby Jane, we are back in 1939 by the end.

This Davis is initially softer than you might expect – there are flashes of the tough Yankee woman who “hates California”, but Sherr has chosen to disregard the Bette most of us know (clipped voice, sardonic look, chain-smoking) and instead produce something rather less steely.

It is an interesting approach. Davis – who was, unbelievably, just five feet three inches in height – had a difficult climb to the top. Warner Bros signed her but put her in a run of poor pictures (easy to view, with the exception of 1931’s Seed) which, nevertheless, allow insight into her myth.

Promotional image for Bette Davis Ain't For Sissies

Sherr’s show has visited the Fringe many times and last ran at the Assembly in Edinburgh in 2019. This digital version feels assured, with great fidelity to the period and with enough supporting characters on the end of the phone or in reminisce to keep an audience interested in what’s happening.

Hollywood politics are always to the fore – studio heads pushing their talent into unsuitable roles and heavy workloads (“in those days we filmed back to back”). Davis took her studio to court, and lost, but blazed the way for others.

In personal life, there really isn’t any privacy, even when she eloped at twenty-six with Ham Nelson, her high-school sweetheart. A second marriage to Arthur Farnsworth ends tragically: there were rumours, and Sherr picks one. Third time unlucky, a marriage to William Sherry produced a daughter, B.D., who turned venomous later in life.

Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies (the title refers to a Davis quote of some years later about old age) references the women’s lot in the Golden Age of Hollywood – exploitative auditions, unequal pay (a topic still current in movies in the 21st century), a string of love affairs, the expectation to look ‘just so’.

A strong peformance in a play which will entertain film buffs.

Fringe rating: *** (and a half)

You can stream Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies on the C Arts platform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe until the end of August: buy your ticket here.