Bakersfield Mist is a short, fairly enjoyable play that battles clichés and unbelievable set-ups as it tries to make a point about art, education and the patronising exclusivity and arrogance of the art world.
Maude (Kathleen Turner) is a trailer park mom on the West Coast of the States desperately trying to convince Lionel (Ian McDiarmid), an educated, English art dealer who has just flown in on a private jet from New York, that a painting she picked up for three bucks in a thrift store is a Jackson Pollack masterpiece.
You have to suspend quite a bit of disbelief in the set-up - that such an esteemed art dealer would make such a trip himself - and frustratingly you have to keep suspending disbelief all the way through.
Lionel - arrogant and aloof - is savouring his opportunity to belittle Maude, a woman he considers beneath him in terms of class and education, by declaring her painting a fake. "Proving forgeries is a personal crusade of mine" he declares on meeting Maude, with almost palpable relish.
But though Maude may be out of her depths in the art world, she is a survivor and she will do whatever it takes to get to prove to her visitor that what she believes is the truth.
In reality, Lionel would've taken one look at the painting, declared it a fake and left (assuming that he would have made the trip at all). But here we have to go with it as Maude coerces Lionel to remain, gets him roaringly drunk in a matter of minutes on whisky she nicked from the bar she just got fired from, and sets about trying to persuade him of the painting's authenticity by any means possible.
Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid are stars, obviously, and there is some entertainment in seeing these big names battling for intellectual and moral superiority in the cramped confines of Maude's trailer park home. However they are hampered by Stephen Sachs' writing which adds more incredulity with every turn - Maude attempting to seduce Lionel being an almost out-of-character moment.
Nevertheless the actors do their best. McDiarmid goes for more physical comedy as he gets more and more drunk to try and make it believable that he would open up so quickly to Maude. It's an understandable approach even though it can get a bit OTT.
Kathleen Turner works to bring integrity and dignity to Maude where perhaps the set-up might reduce her to a stereotype.
The highlight of the production for me was a superb set design from Tom Piper. Maude's trailer park home is crammed full of every type of junk and tacky bric-a-brac cliché possible. The home is almost a character in itself and it adds to the prejudices about this woman, how could she possibly know anything about real art?
But that of course is the point. Stephen Sachs' writing touches on a lot - the value of art, the emotions of creativity, the empathy for artistic expression, even class and life itself. If we have felt pain and suffering, as well as joy and happiness in life, then surely we have enough to understand emotion in art? Do we need to be educated to appreciate art?
All these questions are left unresolved and we are left with an open book of questions that goes far beyond whether the specific painting is a genuine Pollack. These are subjects that would have been more interesting if the premise hadn't been so forced.
This play ends rather abruptly, which may not be a surprise given that the set-up is so awkward, at a short 75 minutes. But given that top-price tickets are retailing for up to £85, it's questionable whether this show gives value for money.
However if you are keen to see these two big names and have flexibility in which dates you can attend, you can find tickets discounted to more affordable rates at the Love Theatre website and at the Leicester Square half-price ticket booth.
Duchess Theatre, London to August 30, 2014
Image credits: Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid © Simon Annand