The debate over what is art has been around since the first Stone Age painters took to their caves to daub them with images of animals.
It boils down, in the end, to opinions. A connoisseur, an expert in his field, can announce that a tumbler of water sitting on a shelf is art but, to you or I, it’s just a glass of water.
Bakersfield Mist, which opened at The Duchess Theatre, in London’s West End, this week pitches Hollywood screen legend Kathleen Turner against Britain’s Ian McDiarmid in a drama about art that is loosely based on a true story.
Turner’s Maude is stereotypical American trailer park trash, the kind you see on the Jeremy Kyle Show. Bad hair-do, plaid shirt and lots of attitude.
She swears like a trooper, drinks and smokes too much and lost her job as a bartender for, inexplicably, trying to kill herself.
In her spare time this larger-than-life blue collar divorcee scavenges around thrift shops and her home is stuffed full of kitsch.
One of her buys was a three dollar painting which she intended to give to a neighbour but she thought it so awful that Maude was forced to keep it for herself.
Then one day someone put it into her head that her bargain buy was actually a lost Jackson Pollock worth anything from $50-$100 million and the only way to verify that was to get an expert in from New York.
Lionel is sniffy from the moment he arrives. Throw in condescending, snobbish and arrogant. He is, after all, a great authority on modern art and Maude is, well, the salt of the earth.
“I like to think of myself as a fake-buster,” he announces smugly.
And so the stage is set for a battle of wills with Maude not as dumb as she first appears and Lionel, after a few drinks, not as patronising.
Both clash, and discover each other’s vulnerabilities, while under the influence as they grapple their own failings and, more importantly, the veracity of her painting.
“It’s impossible to forge a Pollock,” declares Maude. “Who else would paint s*** like that?”
The audience never gets to see the canvas, and there’s not a resolution to the issue at hand, but both stars use broad brush-strokes to paint their own masterpieces in performance.
Turner’s gravel voice is huskier than ever as though she’d just smoked 100 cigarettes before the show. She is magnificent as the desperate, lonely, down-on-her-luck, Maude.
Her nemesis, Lionel, is prissy, pretentious, public school-educated, and unequivocally boorish, but we see an altogether different man when he opens up to his host.
It’s a beautifully subtle performance that contrasts wonderfully to the full-on Maude.
The story itself is whimsical but incidents like this have happened and Stephen Sachs has come up with an urban myth that is both entertaining and amusing.
Director Polly Teales is right to keep Bakersfield Mist at just 70 minutes.
The last few minutes find the play running out of steam. There’s only so long you can debate the meaning of art.
Bakersfield Mist runs at The Duchess Theatre until August 30.