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Bakersfield Mist: An authentic production that just falls short of being deemed the genuine article

| Theatre | 29/05/2014

Bakersfield Mist at the Duchess Theatre
Bakersfield Mist at the Duchess Theatre

It is a story that captures the public imagination, an old painting, hanging overhead for countless number of years, considered ordinary and worthless, could actually be extraordinary, and worth a considerable amount. This is the essence of Stephen Sachs Bakersfield Mist. Through a long-draw out debate about the authenticity of a certain Jackson Pollock painting, both Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid, as Maude and Lionel respectively, dazzle in a production that leaves you wanting more.

Sachs’ play centres on the true story of Maude. Maude holds a very strong inclination that the abstract painting she brought for her dear neighbour, in a local thrift store for three dollars, was an authentic painting by artist Jackson Pollock. To this end she invited art expert Lionel to her trailer home to authenticate the piece, and hopefully make her rich beyond her wildest dreams. Maude resides in Bakersfield, California, whilst art connoisseur Lionel heralds from the opposite side of America, New York. Sachs’ planned for two very different worlds to collide, and boy did they collide, it has to be noted on a mesmerising stage-set, with spectacular results.

On the one hand you have working class Maude who strives to do the best she can with what she has. On the other hand there’s Lionel, who considers Maude not only to be beneath her in terms of both class and education, but seems to relish the opportunity to belittle Maude at every conceivable opportunity. The drama of their fractious meeting is set in Maude’s trailer house, which could be best described as in a derelict state, but with homely touches; the trailer house was furnished with numerous paintings, odd objects, dodgy ornaments, and anything that captured Maude’s eye in the local thrift and charity shops. Tom Piper deserves a pat on the back for crafting out and envisioning such a superb setting. Piper’s set design is a real authentic piece of art; it’s just a marvel to behold.

The strength of Bakersfield Mist is that it’s not a play about art, well it is, but it’s not. There’s a deeper meaning to be found in amidst the clutter of Maude’s trailer. What occurs in eighty-five minutes on stage is a clash of cultures, class, and goes beyond a discussion of whether the painting is authentic, to addressing if our two protagonists are themselves authentic representations of themselves. In amidst a boozy clash of cultures, it seems that Maude and Lionel actually have as much in common as day and night. But that’s the strength of the production, if they were from a similar background the frictions and emotions exhibited in stunning fashion would not I believe have materialised as they did on stage.

We never see the painting, which is a shame, but we are privy to Lionel’s beady eyed scrutiny of the painting. He declares the painting as a fake, and inauthentic, but it is how he reached delivers his verdict that is especially funny and noteworthy. The play also packs an intensive emotional punch. The struggles of Maude, her alcoholic husband, the struggles with her son, his tragic death, provide a number of touching and moving scenes.

Sachs’ the man behind the production is trying to get the audience to shed Lionel’s ‘blink’ instantaneous judgement of people. Lionel views people like he views art, it’s all about the first two seconds, everything after that doesn’t matter. But then are we to believe that boisterous, out-spoken, hard-drinking Maude is more authentic than uptight Lionel? It is quite clear that Sachs’ directed the play to favour Maude; an eccentric woman whose passion and drive for truth trumps any financial reward that may be available. Is Maude then, our David set up against Goliath, who in this instance is represented by Lionel and the art establishment? If there’s one thing that our David has it’s the backing of the audience. One thing’s for sure, as the play progressed, the relationship between Maude and Lionel blossomed, but quickly wilted as their very different worlds collided.

Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid in Bakersfield Mist. Photo credit Simon Annand.

Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid in Bakersfield Mist. Photo credit Simon Annand.

Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid are inevitably as the only two actors on stage, the stars of the show. Turner provides an emotional and touching performance that is stunning, and dazzles with pure joy, and inspiration. Whilst, McDiarmid is able to effortlessly present the snobbish and patronising Lionel in a manner that gave him a veneer of authority, but was also able to show the vulnerabilities and insecurities of Lionel. Turner was a delight, and her compelling performance went hand-in-hand with McDiarmid’s authoritative performance.

Bakersfield Mist almost ticks all the boxes that would make it into a leading West End show. But as the lights fade out on Maude sitting in her armchair you don’t quite feel this is the end of the story; surely there’s something more to come? Despite any misgivings on the ending, Turner and McDiarmid are terrific, and it’s their on-stage performance that will surely add some authenticity to the dubious picture at the heart of the show.

By Sandip Kana (@sandipkana)

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