Thursday, 29 May 2014

Theatre review: Bakersfield Mist

Kathleen Turner is no stranger to the West End, and her latest visit sees her take on a broken woman whose one remaining hope in life is tied up in an unlikely place. Lionel (Ian McDiarmid) is an authority on modern art whose career has seen his instincts rarely betray him, and who now works for an elite art institution, investigating potential forgeries. His latest job takes him to the unlikely venue of a trailer park in Bakersfield, California, and a woman whose usual taste in art extends to generic watercolours and drawings of clowns (a detailed set design from Tom Piper.) Turner plays Maude, who bought the ugliest painting she could find in a junk shop for $3, as a gag gift for a friend. Closer inspection, though, reveals that it could be a previously unknown Jackson Pollock, and Lionel's seal of approval could mean the difference between junk and millions of dollars in value.

The value of art is the crux of the matter in Stephen Sachs' Bakersfield Mist, but it's rarely the financial one that's in question. Instead we see the way art and its significance has affected Lionel's life, and even more so, the way people's flaws and artifice in real life have driven his obsession with spotting these things in artworks.

For Maude, on the other hand, the significance is rooted very specifically to this one painting that she doesn't even like - and that the audience never sees; and its relationship to the things she's lost in her life makes its value to her even harder to pin down. What I particularly liked about Turner's performance is that although Maude is an alcoholic with a tragic backstory, she doesn't play her with self-pity: She's desperate but not brittle, and there's no apparent temptation for the actress to grandstand and indulge in her character's misery.

McDiarmid often has to act as the comic foil in this clash of personalities, and he's very good at bringing out the comedy in Lionel's true passion for his subject, without outright mocking it. The play is perhaps a bit too intimate, and lost even on one of the smallest West End stages, and the plot's necessity for the characters to very quickly become drunk then miraculously sober up again is irritating. But Polly Teale's production is nicely understated and, if not a classic, Bakersfield Mist is more intelligent that many of the big-name vehicles that make it to the stage.

Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs is booking until the 30th of August at the Duchess Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

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