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BAKERSFIELD MIST Duchess, WC2

KATHLEEN TURNER BLOWS INTO TOWN, AN AUTHENTIC HURRICANE

 

Under a tangle of brushwood and a ratty telegraph pole, Maude’s trailer-park home is full of junk from dumpsters and charity shops: naff pictures, fridge magnets, fake fruit, well-used shot-glasses. There’s a case of Bourbon stolen from the bar she was fired from, and a photo of her dead son. With straining jeans, hoarse tones and dishevelled henna mop she is an all-American nobody, beached in a strip of nothingness in the drive-through-quick bit of California. Yet she shines, defiantly authentic, a force of nature, an artwork. She is Kathleen Turner, and with this storming performance is more than welcome back to the West End stage.

 
The play is an 80-minute two-hander with the formidable Turner playing against the equally strong-flavoured Ian McDiarmid as Lionel, patrician – and English-born – art expert and former director of the New York Metropolitan Museum. He has, with disaste, flown down on his Institute’s private jet to rule on the authenticity of a picture she picked up for three bucks. She thinks it’s a Jackson Pollock. He, with lofty discourtesy, makes it clear that he doubts it will be any such thing. Not in a grubby trailer, in the hands of an unemployed middle-aged barmaid. McDiarmid’s body language, effetely distasteful, is hilarious: indeed for a while during their initial sparring I feared that Stephen Sachs‘ play would prove little more than an entertainingly cartoonish revue sketch. When she hauls out the canvas – tantalizingly, we never see the front – he dismisses it after a few blinks, justified with a languid “It’s called connoisseurship”. To which Maude – “It’s called bullshit!”.

 
Whereupon the contest gets personal. Maude is determined, street-smart, and has enrolled her local homicide cop to do some forensics. Lionel is loftily stubborn, but wrongfooted when she knows more than he thinks about his former career, thanks to Google. Beyond the mere financial implications – a real Pollock is worth many millions – each has an emotional agenda, and a perilously hysterical relationship both with the need for truth and with the turbulent nature of Pollock, who worked “always on the edge of catastrophe”. The bourbon comes out. Personal histories are related. Verbal fights become physical. An inappropriate advance is made (“You’re drunk!” “I’d need to be!”). Unexpected mutual appreciation flickers. The need for great art is debated, ramshackle but urgent. There is a final moment which sends a good shiver down your spine.

 
So never for a minute was I bored, or unappreciative of two terrific performances under Polly Teale’s sharp direction. Yet there is an awkward flaw in Sachs‘ play: it remains too hard to believe that any serious assessment of such a work would be left to a mincing white-haired snob’s “blink of cognition”. Not in this age of fine-art forensics (good grief, we’ve all watched Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce peering at paint-flakes on FAKE OR FORTUNE). Bringing these two characters together is dramatically splendid, indeed irresistible, but that improbability nags a bit too much. In a piece so focused on authenticity, that sort of matters. But you won’t regret going to see this pair at work.
box office 0844 579 1973 to 30 August
rating: three   3 Meece Rating

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