Isabella McCarthy Sommerville remembers the first time she read the part she’s about to take on in this month’s Fringe: “It terrified me, and not in a good way,” she remarks of the fictional Brighton ‘whore’ at the centre of Jonathan Brown’s play, Betsy. “I’d never done a one-woman show before and I didn’t know if I could.” But she felt differently when she re-read the script a year later: “The fear had shifted into excitement. It was a combination of things; partly having played bigger roles but also just growing up. I felt more capable than I had, more fearless.”
It’s a big role; Betsy is frank and sexy, but she’s also vulnerable, a young woman living on her wits. In an 1800s Brighton landscape that contrasts grand Regency mansions with homes for ‘penitent women’, she has been given an apparently plum job keeping an eye on the house of builder and developer Thomas Kemp. The relocation introduces her to various upper-class clients including a man by the (wonderfully Dickensian) name of George Bintshaft, who lands her in a situation that requires more than street smarts to navigate.
The script goes from “visceral and bawdy to shocking and dark,” says McCarthy Sommerville, the third actor to play Betsy since Brown premiered the play at the 2013 Brighton Fringe. The part of Betsy leaves no room for coyness and has been likened to stand-up comedy for the way the actor must interact with the room. “In the last show I did with Jonathan [The Good Jew] there were a few moments when I had to make direct eye contact with the audience. In this play I do it a lot,” she says. The venue too puts the audience right at the heart of things. Previous productions took place in the claustrophobic Old Police Cells in the basement of Brighton Town Hall. This time the action moves to the Cellar Suite beneath the historic Old Ship Hotel – another intimate performance space. “The capacity for each show is 25 people and they will be spread around me so there’s nowhere to hide, for me or the audience.”
But McCarthy Sommerville is prepared for the challenge. “I spend a lot of time at the moment dressed in Betsy’s big skirts and petticoats – even if I’m just rehearsing my lines. They make me move differently and feel more like her. I also find that when I’m walking around town, in my head I’m Betsy. I like to look at the landscape, picturing what her life would have been like in the same places I’m walking as a young woman today. When I go past the big houses down on Hove seafront that’s where I picture her.”
Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore, The Old Ship Hotel, May 3, 4, 25, 31 & June 1.