You’d have to go back to the Palaeolithic age to find the last great play to have its premiere on the West End (well, maybe 14 years, to Alan Bennett’s ‘The Lady in the Van’). So it’s no surprise to note that ‘Bakersfield Mist’, a sassy, sentimental new drama by US playwright Stephen Sachs, is not a great play.
But it is an effective enough vehicle for a pair of top-notch older actors, and if you’ve principally come to see ‘Bakersfield Mist’ for either or both of its stars then you’ll walk away satisfied.
In her third West End role, Kathleen Turner plays Maude, a blowsy, boozy ex-bartender whose JD-sodden life in a California trailer park could be about to change dramatically. She believes that the hideous painting she bought in a junk shop for $3 is in fact a long-lost Jackson Pollock, worth millions. And the reliably excellent Ian McDiarmid is Lionel, the fusty New York art expert who has come to give his opinion on the painting’s authenticity.
Perhaps wisely, director Polly Teale guns for laughs rather than explore the narrative’s mawkish depths. The charismatic, unaffected Turner was always going to fit the grizzled, extroverted Maude like a glove, but McDiarmid joins in by hamming up a storm. His Lionel is a giggling eccentric, forever smirking at his own obscure jokes, or jerking about the stage like some sort of strange, cuddly insect. It’s hard to believe his character was supposedly the former head curator at MoMA, but he is great fun, and there’s a natural odd-couple rapport between the two that powers ‘Bakersfield Mist’ through its slender 80-minute run time. On the more earnest side, Sachs does manage to make quite a decent point about the subjectivity of value judgements, in both art and class.
The script is peppered with crassly melodramatic revelations and po’-country-folks-ain’t-as-dumb-as-you-think shtick, but this doesn’t get too much in the way of its stars having fun – and as a night of pure fun, the stars of Bakersfield Mist give it value.
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Bakerfield Mist is essentially a one-act play that showcases the talent, wit and timing of Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid. A wonderful display that deserves more bums on seats!
Maude (Kathleen Turner), a recently-fired bartender living hand-to-mouth in an American trailer park, is welcoming an art evaluator to her humble residence. Between swigs of JD’s, Maude explains to her guest that she bought an abstract replica painting from a thrift (junk) store for a few dollars, before deciding instead to get a handgun and use it for target practice. Then she thought that instead of being just a replica, the painting might just be a genuine Jackson Pollock, in which case she can obviously sell it for a fortune. So she's called in New York art expert, Lionel Percy (the brilliantly uptight Ian McDiarmid) to tell her if it's real and if so how much she will make.
Maude is a great deal smarter than Percy first thinks, and there's more to the supposedly never-wrong art critic than she initially assumes. A battle of wits ensures in this odd-couple comedy, with both trying to put their viewpoints forward and determine the truth as they see it.
As the arguing about the authenticity of the painting continues, the audience finds out more about both characters' pasts and failed marriages, and sees more behind the facade of Maude’s bluster and Percy’s self-absorbed pretentiousness.
Set designer Tom Piper has crammed the set with wall-to-wall bric a brac - the results of Maud’s lifetime of searching through junk shops. The trashy decorations include beer-can chimes hanging outside the grimy, cracked windows, kitschy replica pictures echoing the chipped and faded furniture, and an ever-ready bottle of JD’s on the kitchen counter, jostling for space with even moreclutter.
McDiarmid is flawless as the humourless art critic, the perfect foil for Maude's slightly boozy bohemian, while Turner, solid now yet still sassy in tight denim and check shirt, is funny, earthy and abrasive.
The pace, despite the energy, does become a little slow before the final showdown, as the question hanging over both characters isn’t answered. Is Maude just about to become a millionaire or a self-deceiving drunk?
However, director Polly Teale keeps the audience guessing: it's easy to write off Maud as a desperate lush keen to cash in on her lucky find (assuming it is real) and dismiss Percy as a box-ticking bureaucrat, bent on trashing her dreams of fame and fortune.
But there's more to both than that, and as the dispute continues, both reluctantly look at themselves as they examine the painting. This never-seen artwork, whether either priceless treasure or worthless forgery, becomes the third character in the play.And towards the ending, all three are put under the spotlight and are, quite literally, in the frame.
Two classy performances although the dynamic is certainly changed by making the art dealer British rather than American. A play with comedy, elements of farce, a consistent undertone of desperation borne out of loneliness and depending on your interpretation an ending symbolising hope or delusion. All the elements of great American drama...
I would happily watch Kathleen Turner again and since I still remember Ian McDiarmid from his performances in the 80s at the royal exchange in manchester, I must admit I went to enjoy not to critique. I am sure there were faults - but none I remember. Go and experience some fine acting.