Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore

Betsy had a plan. Just one final trick and she would have saved enough money to take her son away from Brighton’s seedy underworld of the late 1880s. But it wasn’t meant to be for Betsy.

The play is deeply rooted in Brighton’s local history

Betsy's story begins at the St Mary’s Home for Penitent Women, where she wasn’t really penitent enough for a lifestyle of a nun. She was forced to move into a workhouse, but she rather chose to support herself by the oldest profession, prostitution. Betsy wasn’t looking for pity or sympathy. "Don't you judge me," she hissed ferally. "You think I don't see you selling your souls?"

The Brighton Fishing Museum loft, dedicated to Brighton's seaside history, gives an ideal setting for the play. It comes alive as we watch Betsy’s story unfold. For a while, she wasn’t doing too bad. She found ‘a rich nob’, George Bintshaft, to look after her, even if he never let her forget her place. Things got complicated when she gave birth to a son, Jacky, right there on the Brighton shoreline. Tender feelings of motherhood got inevitably on a crash course with the harsh reality on the streets. But Betsy was a tough cookie. She might have made it, if she had just kept her big mouth shut. Unfortunately, there was no happy ending for Betsy.

Betsy is a fictional character, but the play is deeply rooted in Brighton’s local history including prominent figures like the Prince Regent and Thomas Kemp. Also local landmarks like the arches, piers, the clocktower and the Quadrant pub play an essential part in the story. Writer Jonathan Brown does a great job in giving the award-winning Brighton-born actor Isabella McCarthy-Sommerville plenty of room to build a feisty yet adorable Betsy.

Isabella McCarthy-Sommerville delivers the one and a half an hour monologue with amazing passion and skill, every inch of her tiny frame becoming Betsy. Sometimes she was in your face – literally as the front row discovered – sometimes she drifted quietly away to her memories. She made us hang onto every whisper, every moan, every scream she made. As a gifted storyteller, Isabella not only delivered Betsy, but a long line of other characters in Betsy’s story. Especially the punters and other seedy male characters were pure brilliance.

What was missing then? As mesmerising and gripping as the story was, the final emotional trigger that would have had the Fishing Museum Loft weeping simultaneously with the waves was missing. There were elements in the story that could have been used to milk the tears, but perhaps the narrative just left too little room for deeper reflection. You cared for Betsy, you rooted for her and you desperately wanted her to make it.

As for the wisdom part, was there something that Betsy was trying to tell us? She refused to be a victim, but no matter how hard Betsy tried, she couldn’t cross the class barrier into becoming a respectable woman. Let the cobbler stick to his last, or the prostitute to her tricks. In a fairytale, Betsy would have escaped with her son to make a fresh start in life. But life wasn’t a fairytale then and it still isn’t today. There are plenty of Betsys out there.

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Reviews by Johanna Makelainen

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Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this review has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
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Performances

Location

The Blurb

A tale of sex, seduction and survival in the underworld of 1800's Brighton. "I'll lift me skirts and show you what I've been hiding from you for thousands of years...". Discovered in a subterranean, historic chamber, Betsy tells her story. A thrilling, award-nominated, one-woman show from the multi-award-winning theatre company, Something Underground, performed by award-winning actor Isabella McCarthy Sommerville – returning after a highly acclaimed, sell-out run in 2019. "Writer Jonathan Brown knows how to drive a plot" (Lyn Gardner, The Guardian) "Spellbinding" (Fringe Review) "A secret gem of the Fringe, not to be missed!" ★★★★★ (Remote Goat) "This exquisite performance is colourful, unrelenting and at times brutal" ★★★★★(Latest) "Try to catch her if you can" ★★★★★ (Fringe Review) Brighton & Hove Arts Council Best Actress 2017

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