On a seemingly ordinary night in 1962, LA gossip columnist Hedda Hopper invites movie stars and rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford for a night of airing dirty laundry, throwing insults, and making a few deals. After lots of drinks and a fine wager from Bette, Marilyn Monroe makes an appearance and the whole night goes off the rails.
Based on real events and salacious rumours, John Misto’s script is about revealing and unraveling the secrets of the Hollywood elite. Bette (Faith Jessel) and Joan (Leigh Scanlon) have no idea why Hedda (Annette Emerton) has invited them to her house but, based on her job, it’s sure to be scandalous. After far too many drinks and some flirtation with Hedda’s butler Skipper (Adam Garden) the two stars decide on a wager on who gets top billing on their newest film What ever happened to Baby Jane?, which previewed that night, and it involves getting Marilyn Monroe (Jacqui Wilson) over to their do as soon as possible. What unfolds is far more than anyone expected including hidden romances, secret children, presidential politics, and a run-in with the Mob.
Annette van Roden’s direction focuses on the physicality of so many large personalities spending the evening in a room together where each of them is battling for the (literal) spotlight. The actors fill the stage, designed in a true 1960s living room style by Peter Rhodes, while they sling insults and pithy one-liners across their liquor glasses in whatever combination of tensions are present. The main disadvantage to this staging was the unbalanced pacing of the script which saw the vast majority of action take place in the jumbled second half; leaving the first feeling rather insubstantial.
The large motivation of Misto’s script was the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, an infamous relationship that only heightened the hype around Baby Jane. While there are attempts to find middle ground in their hatred of Marilyn in an old v new Hollywood dynamic, and the two stars acknowledge the relative performativity of their arguments, the hostility between all four women within this production is largely used as a dubious veil for a large cat fight. Women hating other women, being jealous of their success, and tearing each other down for anyone watching is overdone and a shallow take on the politics of 1960s’ USA. Bette, Hedda, Joan, and Marilyn were talented and powerful women who are remembered decades after their death and the impetus to “take them down a notch”, especially in the drawn-out punchline of Marilyn’s drug addiction, doesn’t do their memory justice.
Jessel is a compelling representation of Bette with a spunky, fighter’s attitude that just keeps on rolling. Her often bone dry delivery was frequently unexpected and made good use of the word play available to her. Scanlon’s Joan was definitely more refined and removed from the rougher aspects of the evening. Additionally, Wilson provided an excellent impersonation of Marilyn from the breathy delivery to her squeaky giggle and her fluffy slippers exuded the necessary naiveté. With a more compassionate characterisation, Marilyn could have been a complete knock-out.
While Jessel, Scanlon, and Wilson have great comic timing and are whip-quick in their banter, the constant insults and jabs grew tired and seemed more inclined to turning the women into punching bags than furthering the plot. It’s clear Misto did thorough research for this script through both facts and rumours that circled in the day but so much of Dark Voyager reads as a romanticising nostalgia for the good old days of Hollywood and all the racism, sexism, homophobia, and ablism that came with them. To say the plot line of guessing why Skip didn’t rape Marilyn while she was semi-conscious and naked is insensitive and tone-deaf would be an understatement.
The glitz and glamour of Hollywood hasn’t really dulled over the years and there’s still a desire to know what makes these celebrities tick. Dark Voyager imagines what happened in Hedda’s living room that evening and what were the consequences of such a meeting. While the script left a lot to be desired in terms of contemporary attitudes and expectations, the Castle Hill Players staged it with gusto and an inclination for authenticity in their representation of these big names and bigger personalities.
Dark Voyager is running at the Pavilion Theatre from April 5th – 27th