Thursday, 21 July 2022

Review: Bessie at Midnight, Alone (Blue Masque Theatre Company, GM Fringe)

Friday 15 July 2022
Salford Arts Theatre

The Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout the month of July at various venues around Greater Manchester. And, once again, I’m going to be reviewing a selection of the productions on offer for this blog, and also for The Festival Show on North Manchester FM.

On Friday 15th July, I was at the Salford Arts Theatre to review Bessie at Midnight, Alone, a performance by Blue Masque Theatre Company. The radio version of this review will be going out on The Festival Show on Friday 22nd July, but here’s the blog version…

Bessie at Midnight, Alone is a new production from Blue Masque Theatre Company. Written by Derek Martin and directed by Rhonwen McCormack, the play is a one-act (sort of!) monologue featuring the titular Bessie… well, at midnight and alone.

Bessie is a prostitute, and she is waiting in an isolated patch of woodland for one of her clients to arrive. As she waits, she tells her story to the audience in a roundabout, meandering narrative, punctuated by the ominous sounds of rustling undergrowth and interrupted by Bessie calling out to whoever it is who is watching her. Her story takes in her life as a prostitute, and a couple of her regular clients (The Colonel and Merrie Andrew) with whom she’s had long-standing business arrangements. Bessie also talks about her mother, and the way she was introduced to the sex trade as a child, and about a young rival who goes by the name Maria Bella Amorosa, despite not actually being Italian.

Bessie, played by Janelle Thompson, appears on stage with just a lantern in one hand and a blanket in the other. She is confident and assured, despite the darkness and foreboding noises coming from the bushes. She is waiting for Merrie Andrew, a young man who – we will learn later in the play’s first half – is somewhat intellectually challenged.

The first striking thing about the character of Bessie is her costume. Designed by Zoey Barnes, Bessie’s outfit sets the scene for how the play will unfold. While undoubtedly conjuring the image of a Victorian ‘harlot’, Bessie’s outfit is unfinished and curiously anachronistic. An electric blue bustier is paired with a hooped underskirt cage (but no petticoat or overskirt) through which fishnet stockings are visible. This costuming creates a very particular atmosphere and tone, without being easily attached to specific historic circumstance – and this approach will define the play as a whole.

Although a lot of Bessie at Midnight, Alone feels as though it is set in particular time – specifically, the late Victorian period – this is effected through touching on certain stereotypical images of the ‘harlot’ from popular culture, rather than directly offering historical context. On a closer watch, much of the play works to deny a Victorian setting rather than affirm it – ‘Merrie Andrew’ feels like a character from an earlier time, and some of Bessie’s language (e.g. referring to nuns as having a ‘hotline to God’) feels far more modern. Musical cues, too, unsettle our notion of a clear setting, with some parts of Bessie’s monologue being accompanied by a varied soundtrack that takes in styles from the medieval to the modern.

Now, I’ve said that Bessie at Midnight, Alone is a monologue, and it is – technically. But this term perhaps doesn’t do justice to the storytelling techniques at work here. While much of the narrative is delivered by Bessie ‘telling her story’ to the audience, she breaks off at times to perform short sketches to illustrate scenes from her life.

It’s in these sketches that Thompson’s skill as a performer really shines. As Bessie acts out the roles of Merrie Andrew, The Colonel, her mother and – later – a police officer and a nun, Thompson embodies these characters, adopting new voices, mannerisms and physical performance to bring the characters to life on stage. Thompson doesn’t slip, either, making each persona as ‘real’ as Bessie herself. Interestingly, the only significant character who doesn’t ‘appear’ on stage is Maria Bella Amorosa, whose interactions with Bessie are only ever narrated and not performed. Without giving any spoilers – though, as Bessie herself notes in the second half of the play, some audience members may guess something important before it is revealed (I’ll admit that I did!) – this decision is, in fact, a storytelling technique in itself, and one that works very well.

At the beginning of this review, I referred to Bessie at Midnight, Alone as a one-act play. This is technically true, as there is no interval and the performer doesn’t leave the stage throughout. However, it’s also technically not true, as the narrative and performance is split into two distinct sections, which are separated by a brief blackout and an interval of time.

The play’s first half takes place in the woods where Bessie is waiting, alone, for Merrie Andrew. In this section, she recounts various events in her life that have led her to that place at that moment, often boldly asserting her contentment in her choice of career (though this is tempered by several suggestions that it was far from a ‘choice’ – Bessie does acknowledge earlier aspirations to be an actor or a nun, from which she was steered by her mother, and to marry The Colonel, from which she was steered by… well… The Colonel). That’s not to say there aren't indications of an underlying dissatisfaction, or even unhappiness. I found some of the more comical set pieces – for instance, the Merrie Andrew scenes – unsettling in their evocation of a woman whose entire adult life has revolved around being used for the pleasure of others. ‘You’re not like the others’ quickly gives way to ‘You let me do anything’, and Thompson skilfully lets a subtle hollowness ring through the comedic lines.

This first half builds to a climax as the noise from the bushes builds to a moment of confrontation. The lights drop, and then we rejoin Bessie a number of hours later. The play’s second half then takes a different direction, with the protagonist more reflective and less content with her life. There are more questions in the second act – some of which are directly posed by Bessie, and some of which might linger in the minds of the audience.

In some respects, the play’s second half is less focused, and its narrative ‘shape’ is less distinct. There are moments of repetition, and Bessie’s assured narrative of the first half gives way to a more fragmented (often unclear) storyline. For me, this change of direction worked well. The clarity and confidence of the first half gives way to vulnerability and fear, picking up on some of the more unsettling undercurrents in Bessie’s earlier narration and allowing the depth and complexity of the character to develop.

I do wonder, though, whether this transition would have been clearer had the play been more definitively split into two acts. A short interval after the climactic blackout might help to keep the audience on a surer footing.

Overall, though, I enjoyed Bessie at Midnight, Alone. Perhaps it’s a mark of my own personal taste, but I found the vagueness of time and place, along with the circuitous shape of Bessie’s story, very compelling. I do enjoy uncertainty! However, these features can only work with an assured and engaging performance, and Thompson certainly offered us that. If you get chance to see Blue Masque Theatre’s production of Bessie at Midnight, Alone at another festival this year, this one’s a recommendation from me.

Bessie at Midnight, Alone was on at the Salford Arts Theatre on 14th-16th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of Greater Manchester Fringe shows on this year, please visit the festival website.

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