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A CurtainUp London London Review
Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill - A Life in Three Acts

I like to be recognised but I don't like to be beaten up or sworn at, but that comes with the territory. — Bette Bourne
Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill - A Life in Three Acts
Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill
(Photo: David Gwinnutt)
This totally charming 90 minutes in the theatre is an intimate and affectionate story of one remarkable man's life in theatre — from his East End family upbringing in Hackney, to Drama School at Central and living in a squat of like-minded men, and some women, in Notting Hill in the 1970s. Bette Bourne confides how comfortable he felt wearing frocks and make-up and growing his hair like a woman, which is often how he looks today with his luxuriant, blue rinsed hair swept back from his face. He lived through the Gay Liberation movement, the killer days of AIDS and acted many parts in straight theatre as well as appearing in cabaret shows internationally and setting up the Bloolips Theatre Group.

Bette Bourne (he was born Peter) tells his story in a live interview with playwright Mark Ravenhill probing or prompting anecdotes from the actor and providing photographic or sound illustration. Mark tells us that he has raided Bette's Notting Hill Housing Trust home for props and Bette looks up coyly at us and says, "I used to live in Eaton Square!" with a delicious sense of humour.

We see pictures of Bette aged 4 years old when he sang "Don't Go Under the Apple Tree" when he was in the group "Madame Behenna and Her Dancing Children" and seventy year old Bette will sing it and do the delightfully quaint actions he learnt as a four year old. He speaks with obvious love about his mother who died only last year in her nineties and tells us about his abusive father, explaining his father's anger was due to his horrible wartime experiences in the Royal Navy. We hear a recording of his mother's rendition of "Ave Maria" which visibly moves him.

Occasionally Mark plays the other characters so that Bette can interact with them, which of course artfully breaks up the monologues and gives extra dramatic interest. We see the sophisticated theatre professional but also the cheeky Cockney East Ender. There are word pictures that you will never forget, of that first experience wearing high heels and trying to walk over cobblestones, finding fellow spirits and all hanging out in frocks, buying copies of the all female Greek play Lysistrata for them to read and how the men all performed in a Hollywood actress persona, so one was Marilyn Monroe and others Rosalind Russell, Tallulah Bankhead and Ethel Merman.
Bette Bourne is a wonderful raconteur, the kind of man you want to ask to a dinner party who, as an actor has played everything from the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear to the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare's Globe, and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Bette Bourne teases and amuses but there are moments too of sadness and poignancy. This is unquestionably Bette Bourne's night but Mark Ravenhill's warmth and naturalness allows the rounded portrait of a great performer to captivate.

New Yorkers will be able to see the show in March at St Anne's Warehouse.

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Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill - A Life in Three Acts
Written by Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill
Directed by Mark Ravenhill

Starring: Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill
Internet film: by Beete Bopurne and Mark Ravenhill
Young Bette: Chris Cookson
Producer: Jeremy Goldstein
Running time: One hour 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0870 429 6883
Booking to 27th February 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on the 10th February 2010 performance at the Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE (Tube: Tottenham Court Road)

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