Review: Bakersfield Mist, Duchess Theatre

“You must be drunk
‘I’d better be’”

Fortunately the sheer quality of Kathleen Turner’s stage presence means that you should be able to make it through Bakersfield Mist with decent levels of sobriety but only just. For Stephen Sachs’ odd couple/culture clash/art history romp is a most trying piece of theatre indeed, maintaining the Duchess Theatre’s dubious record for hosting some of the most random things. On the one hand, we should celebrate the arrival of a new, original drama in the West End, such a thing is horribly rare but on the other, if this was someone’s first experience of theatre, you wouldn’t lay bets on them booking for anything else in the near future.

Turner plays Maude, an ex-bartender who lives in a Californian trailer park where she now collects junk from thrift stores. Most of it is piled up in her abode – meticulously designed by Tom Piper – but the jewel in her crown is a $3 painting which she is convinced is a long-lost Jackson Pollock work, worth millions. So she calls a New York art expert to verify its authenticity and when the snooty Lionel arrives, there’s a clash of personalities as snap judgements are made, about both person and painting, which melds into something more genial as bottles of whiskey are cracked open and barriers brought down in the search for common ground.

Sachs has nothing original to say here. Maude is a decent sort because she’s working class, Lionel is funny because he’s a haughty Brit and funny because he’s a snob. It is lazy characterisation through and through and their debates get caught up in these narrowly defined categories from which they’re never allowed to stray. And perhaps conscious of how static this real-time conversation inherently is, Sachs contrives an appalling drunken scene (from which they both sober up unbelievably fast) and pointless noisy mishaps with furniture and Polly Teale’s direction introduces LOTS OF SHOUTING to make sure that we’re all still awake.

But nothing adds any substance to the play, despite the best efforts of Turner and Ian McDiarmid going gamely for ham of the year but falling a long way short – quite why he agreed to do this, on the basis of the drunken scene alone, is beyond me and also beyond his not inconsiderable skill to make things tolerable. Cheap tickets are floating around for this and it is not much over an hour long but in all honesty, I would struggle to recommend this to anyone. 

Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 30th August 

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