Brighton Fringe 2019

Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore

Jonathan Brown Something Underground Productions

Genre: Drama, Fringe Theatre, Short Plays, Solo Performance, Storytelling, Theatre

Venue: Old Ship Hotel Cellars

Festival:


Low Down

In this revival of his 2013 Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore

Jonathan Brown directs lights, sound-scapes and technically operates too. Music by the Somerset-based Dragonsfly enjoys a series of registers, from soft a capella vocals to instrumental blends, Scotch snaps and ethereal new-age chords.

Review

‘I’d rather open my legs four times a week than do some of the things you do.’ That’s in your face if you go near Betsy, and you’re never more than five feet away from her. Often she thrusts her face inches away from you. And nine inches won’t please this lady. We’re the nobs, or the women who don’t understand their menfolk. We’re bait.

 

Writer/director Jonathan Brown’s protean imagination and craft has won many Fringe Awards, and it’s wonderful to see one of the most darkly-visioned of all return. Award-nominated Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore premiered in 2013 with Rachel Guershon and was reprised in 2014 by Elle Dillon Reams.

 

Ever since Isabella McCarthy-Somerville first worked with Brown in his A Good Jew in 2016, it seemed a matter of time before she tackled this solo work, produced here in the most evocative space even this piece has enjoyed.

 

The Old Ship Hotel cellars dating from the 16th century, are even more evocative than the Old Police courts used previously. Here you feel your way down a candlelit tunnel only a little over five feet high, into a traverse space where candles lit on ledges are gradually snuffed out: save one.

 

In this revival it’s directed lit, sound-scaped and technically operated by Brown too. The lighting here – and its precise timing – is one of the two finest seen in this year’s Fringe. Music by the Somerset-based Dragonsfly enjoys a series of registers, from soft a capella vocals to instrumental blends, Scotch snaps and ethereal new-age chords.

 

‘Have you seen the workhouse. Been in the workhouse? The lump Hotel? Well I have. I was born in it, grew up in it, lived in it. Seen my friends… die in it. ‘ Betsy’s part of a larger plan a Trilogy whose consummation is in the fate of her son Jack in The Well. Betsy’s tale is even more harrowing.

 

Betsy recounts her life now then flicks back to her upbringing in St Mary’s where one Nun’s kind to her, Nicola. She has need of her when charmed by a rich ‘nob’ Bintshaft, she falls pregnant and gives birth in the sea, aided by Nicola whom she’s never lost touch with despite being expelled from the convent. Now Betsy has a son too, Jacky, whom she has to protect.

 

At this point McCarthy-Somerville unleashes even further voices or lost women – prostitutes dying or abused, giving birth to a litany of names, not a litter of curses or babies. Her name was Ann…. And repeated with variations, paragraphs on wretched ends: Her name was Lizzy…. Her name was Jane…. Her name was Daisy.’ Then the sound operation booms in with further antiphonal voices with names like an aural cenotaph for the truly forgotten. The story then moves on in a straight-ish chronological lurch to nightmare, taking in the Clocktower ‘my spot’ the Quadrant, and Rottingdean.

 

McCarthy-Somerville possesses a fluidity of movement that’s remarkable: from jagged in-yer-face to oceanic immersion and poetic surrender to other forces. There’s enormous fluency, a capacity to terrace the different accents and voices so her polyphony of characters spring believably from situations like being chased down and beaten by psychopathic odd-job Charlie, Bintshaft’s left-hand man who always goes too far. When she’s rescued by the son of Angel, a woman whom Bintshaft loved too well and whom Charlie killed with tacit consent, she knows she’s in mortal danger. And Jacky’s being shadowed. But Betsy has to earn just one more night…She meets Bintshaft once more, he declares he’s chastised Charlie – but why? And Charlie the psychopath – a voice chillingly done here – is still waiting in the carriage.

 

McCarthy-Somerville’s range is certainly helped by that phenomenally fine technical support too. Not only real candles and their light, but a range of lighting from blood-red to stark white dutifully sculpt the protean actor as she slants voice, body and energy to a particular edge of narrative. In just a few years this actor has a very high reputation, but even McCarthy-Somerville hasn’t had the opportunity perhaps of anything quite as virtuosic as this.

 

This work has been blessed with superb actors now on three occasions. McCarthy-Somerville’s performance according to those who’ve seen this show in an earlier incarnation could stand as definitive. Without making such comparisons, for this writer McCarthy-Somerville gives the most spellbinding performance of even her career. She’s worth seeing before she moves on. Her range and plangency, her capacity to match herself to the writing in every register – brutality, sexiness, sauciness, rough humour, terror, the operation of memory and memorialisation and poetic transcendence are quite exceptional. In particular the technical support here is on a new level, the writing expanded with a greater punch and amplitude – both naturalistically brutal and intensely poetic, even other-worldly, marrying Brown’s range with an actor who embraces it.

 

There was silence for some while after the end. If you can, make this your last stop on the Fringe.

Published