Review: Battersea Bardot

Review: Battersea Bardot

New Wimbledon Theatre Studio showcases a gutsy if puzzling premiere. By Jenny Booth.

There are some shows that get three stars because they are a bit meh, but others – like this brilliant but vexing new musical directed by Elizabeth Huskisson – that cry out for five stars in some departments but are let down by bad decisions in others.

Great choice of subject: the short, flamboyant life of London starlet Carol White (played with passion and sympathy by Anne Rabbitt), who made it to Hollywood on the back of her searing performance in ‘Cathy Come Home’ but then crashed and burned. It’s a great script by Ewen Moore, too, that paints a persuasive picture of White’s contradictions. She is able to see that the seductive mirage of yachts at Cannes, and high stakes schmoozing at Vegas, and lunch with the producer at the best restaurant in Hollywood, are all just a fantasy; and then, even knowing that, to decide that she doesn’t care, she wants it and she is going to gamble on the chance that it might come true for her, no matter who she burns along the way. This is intelligent writing, even lyrical at times, that tells with compassion the story of a woman whose brazen, take-me-as-you-find-me attitude and occasional relationship to the truth actually hide bitter self-awareness, and lead her down a long and humiliating road to disappointment and… , well, death.

Yes, death: because the show starts with White’s death in September 1991. With the darkened stage dramatically lit by blue and red emergency lights (stylish work by lighting designer Alex Forey), this is quite a shocking opening, though White injects some sly humour by welcoming one last chance to star in a real life drama. The opening scene casts a pall over the play, as the audience watches morbidly for clues how things are going to end badly. In fact, the most sordid parts of White’s decline are only touched on at the start and end. Most of the action is told from the standpoint of New Year’s Eve 1969, when White’s career is still technically at its height; although as she admits, it is already on the skids, and her toxic relationship with a particularly abusive lover is blighting her mood. At times glowingly nostalgic, at times acerbic, she recounts what brought her life to that point.

My objections are as follows: why tell this story as a musical, when White herself was not a singer? Why cast an actor (in a one-woman show) whose voice isn’t particularly strong? It might have helped to mic them up. Why is a full-blooded story set on the last night of the swinging sixties arranged for a piano and a cello – why not a guitar and synth?

This show manages the feat, rare in theatre, of having a better first half than second; the climax, as lover Paul lets White down and she glimpses her life crashing around her, is weirdly anticlimactic and even petulant in tone. Maybe the audience had just been anticipating it for too long. Maybe the role of White needs splitting in two, so that the brazen 26-year-old White of 1969 can play off the washed-up, weary 48-year-old White of 1991. This is the opening show in New Wimbledon Theatre’s 2023 Premieres season that showcases new writing, and I wholly commend the theatre for backing a show this bold and gutsy. As with any Marmite experience, I strongly urge you to go along and experience it for yourself and make up your own mind whether this production is a great hit or just misses the mark.

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