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Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore

"Don't you judge me," Betsy warns us. "You think I don't see you selling your souls?" It is her challenge to all who would judge.

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Isabella McCarthy Sommerville in a scene from Jonathan Brown’s “Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore” at the SoHo Playhouse (Photo credit: David Smith)

Scotty Bennett

Scotty Bennett, Critic

Georgy Porgy, pudding and pie,

Kissed the girls and made them cry (die)…

Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore by Jonathan Brown gives meaning to this children’s rhyme that is reputed to be about the Prince Regent of England, who became George IV in 1820. This one-woman play, beautifully performed by Isabella McCarthy Sommerville under the skillful direction of the playwright Jonathan Brown, takes the audience on a journey through her short, anguished, but eventful life in Brighton, England, toward the end of the 18th century. While the period is never explicitly revealed, the references to things in Brighton give the story a time and place. One of the principal characters that Betsy refers to in this anguished story of her life is a man named George Bintshaft and his being a part of the English nobility.

The play starts with Sommerville aggressively confronting the audience as if they are a group making judgments about her apparent lifestyle as a whore. “Don’t you judge me,” she warns us. “You think I don’t see you selling your souls?” It is her challenge to all who would judge. The setting in what is a cabaret theater at the SoHo Playhouse is simply a soft chair and a divan that is used as a device for acting out some of the sexual encounters that are used to illustrate significant events in Betsy’s life.

Sommerville expertly moves from Betsy’s aggressive, angry persona into a more nuanced characterization of a frightened, emotionally wounded woman struggling with the challenges she faces to survive in an unforgiving world of exploitation and violence.

Isabella McCarthy Sommerville in a scene from Jonathan Brown’s “Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore” at the SoHo Playhouse (Photo credit: David Smith)

Betsy tells us of her mother and the circumstances surrounding her birth. We learn of her mother’s struggles to raise her as an only child in a workhouse of that period. We learn that Betsy had chosen to be a whore when few options existed for lower-class women, even if they had some education. Her turn to prostitution was also a way of avoiding the horrors of the workhouse she experienced in her childhood.

We learn of the various lovers, if they can be called that, and one man, in particular, the mysterious George Bintshaft. We also learn about George’s man-servant, a brute named Charlie. These are the men who will seal Betsy’s fate as her story unfolds.

Sommerville gives an exquisite reading of Betsy’s emotional highs and lows, embracing the difficult range of expression so that the audience can experience the intensity of the feelings being shown. She also provides vivid characterizations of the people who populate her story, bringing them to life as it unfolds. Sommerville seduces the audience into empathizing and sympathizing with Betsy. She uses certain physical mannerisms in her presentation that may go overboard at times, but they do add truthfulness to the depth of emotions being shown. However, please make no mistake: this is ultimately a tragic story.

Isabella McCarthy Sommerville in a scene from Jonathan Brown’s “Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore” at the SoHo Playhouse (Photo credit: David Smith)

Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore has been a part of fringe festivals since it was first produced at the Brighton Fringe Festival in 2013. For the fourth time, Isabella McCarthy Sommerville has put on the persona of Betsy, the tragic Brighton whore, and the playwright and director Jonathan Brown clearly thinks she is the actor who brings the play to life.

Dragonsfly provides the recorded incidental music used in and around the show; they are a British folk-rock band started in 1998. Brown uses their music effectively within the play as a transition device to change scenes. He also is the sound and lighting director, which with a few exceptions, works very well.

Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore (through December 23, 2022)

2022 Fringe Encore Series

Something Underground

SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call (212) 691-1555 or visit http://www.ci.ovationtix.com/35583/production/1141354

Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission

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Scotty Bennett
About Scotty Bennett (7 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

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