Maude Gutman is an unemployed ex-barmaid who lives in a trailer park. Lionel Percy is a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art who works for an art foundation to authenticate disputed works of art. Think for a moment about your first assumptions about those two characters. Then imagine them thrown together.
This is the scenario for Bakersfield Mist, where Maude believes she has unearthed a hitherto unknown Jackson Pollock painting, and Lionel is sent to investigate, and to assess whether or not it’s a fake. The play itself is centred on the whole meaning of authenticity, and the legitimacy and acceptance of ‘authority’.
There’s an immediate clash of class attitude, with Maude’s southern drawl and earthy, direct character contrasting with the repressed RP English accent and patronising superiority of Lionel.
The third character in the drama is of course the painting, which is tantalisingly not revealed until some time into the characters’ meeting. Maude reveals the sly, calculating side of her character after Lionel has declared it a fake, when she presents detailed evidence that shows a fingerprint on the reverse of the painting precisely matches that on an acknowledged Pollock original.
Of course, Lionel can’t accept this evidence. It’s not from an ‘acknowledged’ expert. But of course, Maude also knows more about Lionel than he thinks she does – and she mercilessly exposes his preening self-regard to be a sham, as he admits he once wrongly authenticated a fake, and was sacked from his job over the incident.
Maude had been chugging at the Jack Daniels since Lionel arrived, but both characters hit the bottle hard as their outer veneer disappears and we get a closer glimpse at their real personalities. Lionel delivers a magnificent and deeply passionate defence of great art, while Maude reveals sad secrets about the loss of her husband and death of her son, and the language from both is powerful and emotionally raw, but still uplifting.
Both Hazel Eadie as Maude, and Ian Aldred as Lionel, deliver outstanding character performances. The ease with which the straight-laced and disdainful Lionel slips into being open and honest once he has been shocked by Maude, and has a drink or two inside him, is entirely credible, and the gradual revelation of the damaged, feline intelligence of Maude make this a delight to watch. The meeting of these two characters is like watching a slow-motion crash – fascinating and dreadful at the same time.
The staging and decor is delightfully tacky in Maude’s junk-strewn trailer home, and the movement and delivery of the two actors is well directed by Kara Johnston. The audience enjoys laugh-out loud moments at some of the more outrageous pronouncements of the characters, and the clash between the two has a nuanced and controlled drama to it.
This is a truly delightful play, with superb performances and spot-on direction, and with an arc to the story and revelations of human nature that are surprising and convincing. If you love art, even if you hate Pollock, this is one to see. And it’s a genuine original – and only runs for two more nights.
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Aug 20-22 at 20:30 (1h30)
Venue 241 – The Royal Scots Club, 29-31 Abercromby Place