According to Peter Wyngarde, the flamboyant British actor embodied in this one-man bio-play by Garth Holcombe, Hollywood star Bette Davis “went through every actor and technician under the age of 25 at the studio.”
Wyngarde has it that that Davis insisted on an introduction while both were working at a London movie studio. “I hear you have a big cock,” Davis purred after Wyngarde offered a polite hand. She handed him a note with her hotel room number on it.
Pretty good as anecdotes go, and it also serves as a useful bit of connective tissue in this double bill of one-person plays co-devised by their performers and director Peter Mountford.
Davis, as the old adage goes, needs no introduction. Now Voyager, Dark Victory, All About Eve, etc, etc. But if you’re under 50, Wyngarde probably does. In short: a childhood spent in a Japanese internment camp outside Shanghai (with J.G. Ballard, no less); a career that took him from movie bits parts to international celebrity thanks to his roles in campy TV series such as Jason King and The Avengers; a decline in fortunes in the 1970s exacerbated by his arrest for gross indecency in a bus station toilet.
Holcombe brings this eccentric personality to life in a warmly entertaining hour of glass-in hand storytelling. The fruity voice and swishy manner might strike as overdone but you only have to refer to video footage of Wyngarde in action to see that Holcombe’s characterisation is quite acute.
Some of the technical elements of the show aren’t always up to the mark, however, and the halting rhythm of the piece (a function of several costume changes) needs to be addressed.
There are no such issues with Queen Bette. Jeanette Cronin has performed this piece on and off since 2015 and she is in complete control of the material (drawn from Davis’ autobiography and various published interviews), the space and the audience. It’s the kind of masterclass Wyngarde! could learn a lot from.