Theatre Review: Bakersfield Mist, Duchess Theatre

Bakersfield Mist

Ian McDiarmid and Kathleen Turner in Bakersfield Mist

My grandmother had a reproduction of one of Lowry’s famous matchstick men pictures on her dining room wall that she was convinced was one of the painter’s great lost works. The painting, one I remember vividly from my childhood, disappeared after she died and I noted that the original wasn’t in the recent Lowry exhibition at the Tate Britain. Perhaps she was right after all… 

Despite her deep rooted belief, I don’t think my grandmother ever called in an art expert to ascertain the providence of this painting as Maude, the protagonist in Bakersfield Mist, does. And if my gran had persuaded a top art bod to travel to her Reading home to cast an expert eye over her Lowry, I don’t think events would have followed those told in new writer Stephen Sach’s play about the value – both monetary and emotional – of art.

Acting royalty Kathleen Turner is Maude, a trailer park dwelling, unemployed barmaid who ekes out a life for herself on the fringes of the world’s richest country with some help from Jack Daniel’s. She is convinced her fortunes have changed thanks to a $3 painting she picked up at a thrift store as a joke birthday present for a friend. After nearly destroying the painting during the birthday celebrations, Maude decides to sell it in a garage sale where a neighbour tells her he thinks she may have Jackson Pollock on her hands.

Having previously not known a Pollock from a pre-school finger painting, Maude swots up on him and is so certain she’s made the art discovery of the decade that she pays for stuffy art academic Lionel Percy to come down to her trailer park and cast his expert eye over it. All this happens before the curtain goes up so we first meet Maude as she’s shooing off her neighbour’s dogs from Lionel’s trouser legs.

Lionel is played by Scotsman Ian McDiarmid who here plays a stuck up public schooled English plonker. He is an archetypical bah-humbug English villain come to wreck the dreams of a game American. He takes one look at the painting (the audience never see it, I’m hoping it was a blown up Stone Roses’ cover) and Maude’s cramped trailer, and attempts to scurry back to his waiting limo driver. But of course if he did that there wouldn’t be a play, so he sticks around for the next hour and 40 minutes for his part in an amusing two-hander that doesn’t quite catch fire.

Bakersfield Mist is a likable, well-acted play with enough good lines and a few narrative surprises to keep our attention, but it never punches through to greatness and the focus seemed to wander. Things start to get interesting – as they usually do – when Lionel begins knocking back the Jack Daniel’s. McDiarmid plays a great drunk and his character is far more palatable loosened up with Lynchburg’s finest.  Like wine, it’s difficult to talk about art without sounding like a bit of a tit, but when tipsy Lionel expresses his passion for art, and Pollock in particular, he takes the easel from out of his backside and talks like a (very drunk) – human. It’s a shame, not to mention unlikely, that he sobers up so quickly.

For all the initial bolshiness of Kathleen Turner’s Maude, and the actress’ great presence, the part felt rather underwritten. By the end Maude seemed to have shrunk into the background and when she does takes centre stage and starts to spill her secrets to Lionel, her dialogue is jarringly poetic.

The Duchess is a lovely, intimate theatre and the set is a cracker that makes you feel that you’re sitting in Maude’s bric-a-bracstrewn trailer. Bakersfield Mist may not have the punch and resonance of recent US hits, A View from the Bridge and Good People, but it’s a cosy, undemanding drama with two appealing leads that could even convince the most Pollock-phobic that he’s an artist worth loving.

by Suzanne Elliott

Bakersfield Mist runs until 30 August 2014 at the Duchess Theatre.

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