Back Seat Betty

Joshua Val Martin

Cobbled Haze Club

Joshua Brooks

From 01 July 2015 to 03 July 2015

Review by Martin Thomasson

It often falls to grumpy, old writers like myself to huddle in dark corners, bemoaning how the young upstarts get all the support, all the opportunities that were denied us, whilst lacking any proper mastery of the tools of their trade.

Being such a grumpy old dramatist is not without consolation, not least because our gripes are often well-founded. All arts are really crafts in disguise, requiring time and dedication, as well as mere talent, in order to achieve distinction. Youngsters, for the most part, just aren’t ready.

Then again, occasionally, there are young writers like Joshua Val Martin, who is already showing signs that he will be not just an audience’s writer (one with a gift for communicating through drama) but also a writers’ writer (one to whom even the grumpiest and most ancient might doff their dusty caps).

“Back Seat Betty” is a prostitute working from home. Nevertheless, she takes pride in what she has achieved—she doesn’t work the streets, isn’t controlled by a parasitic pimp and pays her way without recourse to state benefits. For this last reason in particular, she feels herself superior to her skanky scrounger neighbours. As the tale begins, there is one love in Betty’s life: Casper, her saluki-cross-greyhound dog. All that is about to change.

Not surprisingly, Betty’s line of work has led her to the conclusion that “men are weird”, a conclusion which seems to be reinforced when one turns up at her door and attempts to rape her. The resilient Betty soon overpowers her would-be assailant before learning it was all a case of mistaken identity. Robert, the man in question, thought he was enacting a shared fantasy with a willing “victim”. Someone has been posing as Betty online. Someone, it seems, is out to get her.

The plan backfires with a vengeance. Before long, Betty and Robert, who turns out to have a good job as a “face doctor”, are “making what I like to call ‘Love’”. Out of the blue, Betty is in love. The course of true love between a prostitute and a doctor is never likely to run smooth but, interestingly, the question soon becomes not so much 'Will Betty have a happy ending?' as 'Does she deserve one?'.

For tonight’s performance, Betty has to contend with a noisy upstairs neighbour (the DJ at Joshua Brooks) and it’s much to Joanne Dakin’s credit that she manages to speak above the background noise without ever seeming to harangue the audience.  Nevertheless, it would be good to see her perform the piece in a less artistically challenging venue.

Dakin gives a focused and persuasive performance—Betty’s restless energy breaking through into agitated movement only at those points where emotion threatens to burst her open. Capably and unfussily directed by Esther Dix, Dakin’s Betty is complex, judgemental and passionate, filled with self-doubt and inner conflict.

The art of writing dramatic monologues has several facets and Martin demonstrates a firm grasp of all of them. He has created a vibrant, complex character who speaks a vivid, often poetic idiolect (we almost always hear the character speaking rather than becoming aware of the writer’s voice). The pace and tone of the piece is well-modulated (again credit to Dakin and Dix for making the most of this), tense, sad, funny, angry, vengeful, needy.

The neighbours and the events Betty speaks of never feel generic, thanks to the writer’s attention to detail; we are drawn into Betty’s world and, for all its bizarre elements, that world feels real. Too many monologues are simply anecdotes for solo voice. “Back Seat Betty” is a dramatic monologue in the proper sense—there is drama and forward movement in the story; we need to know what happens next.

In a well-crafted monologue, the character has a relationship with the audience, she needs something from us: understanding, guidance, validation, forgiveness, etc. There is a neat irony in the fact that the judgemental Betty seems to need us not to think too harshly of her.

Finally, perhaps less essential to a strong dramatic monologue but helpful all the same, there is a reason, a need for the character to tell her story, here and now. This is not just any evening for us to be sitting in Betty’s living room. Something is about to happen and she needs to unburden herself before it does.

There are a few elements of the piece that need work. The ‘Owen Jones book’ social commentary needs to be stronger if it is to be there at all, and the reveal of Betty’s dark secret needs reworking to make better use of its dramatic potential. These, however, are just notes from a grumpy old writer to a talented young one.

Following the success of his contribution to the Royal Exchange’s recent “Come Closer” event, it’s clear that Joshua Val Martin has a gift for writing dramatic monologues. This is no bad thing. After all, it was the making of his fellow Boltonian, Jim Cartwright’s, career.

That said, it would be interesting to see how he handles a bigger cast and a broader canvas.

In recent years, the Royal Exchange has wasted too much money and time (theirs and their long-suffering audience’s) staging productions for brash young writers with a paucity of psychological insight, little of interest to say and inadequate technique with which to try and say it.

This young writer builds truthful characters. He has good and developing technique. He certainly has talent. He is already on the Royal Exchange’s radar. Perhaps it’s time to give him his opportunity, set him the challenge, see what he can achieve.