Fringe THEATRE REVIEW: Betsy @Old Ship hotel

Brian Butler May 26, 2019

In a deep, dark and eerie cellar under the Old Ship hotel in Brighton, we take our seats in a candle-lit vaulted space, seated on three sides of a small acting space.

LYING on a chaise lounge, is Betsy, a self-confident self-confessed whore, plying her trade near Brighton’s clock tower and Quadrant pub in the early 1800’s.

From the outset she verbally attacks audience members literally spitting out her vituperative defence, telling us not to judge her by our standards – which in any case are no better than hers.

For the next 75 minutes Isabella McCarthy Sommerville as Betsy takes us through her sordid but profitable life and the many characters who have interacted with her – from benefactors to lovers, nuns to murderers, all the people jumbled up in her befuddled dreams.

She lives in this cellar – under a house owned by the famous entrepreneur Thomas Kemp, who has done a bunk abroad to avoid his creditors. She is put in charge of his house till he returns, and when he doesn’t she is given the cellar to live in as her reward.

There are many other rewards for the young woman, including the on and off attentions of George Bintshaft – overseer of Brighton’s poorhouses, from which he skims a percentage of profit.

The plot is intricate but believable and it leads us from homes for the penitent to the mansions of Brunswick, the murderous beach at Rottingdean, and the doorstep of even the Prince Regent.

It’s a dark and vicious tale of illegitimacy, power, corruption, loveless sex, betrayal and despair.

In the claustrophobic setting of the Old Ship’s former wine cellar, we are trapped in Betsy’s life and ultimate doom. Isabella plays it full-on, sparing us no details of her sexual encounters. In a startling physical performance she even simulates her savage beating by George’s henchman, writhing under his punches and kicking so vividly we can imagine we can see him.

In her dreams she believes herself underwater – a premonition which all too really comes true, and again the actor’s physical contortions are mesmerising.

Betsy, written and directed by Jonathan Brown, is part of Brighton Fringe and plays at the Old Ship until June 1.

Review by Brian Butler