Bessie at Midnight, Alone

Derek Martin
Blue Masque Theatre
Salford Arts Theatre, Salford

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Bessie at Midnight, Alone
Bessie at Midnight, Alone

Bessie (sole performer Janelle Thompson) informs the audience she could have been an actor but chose to follow the family tradition and enter the more honest profession of prostitution. Bessie is waiting, at midnight, for a client who is running late. Although alone, and despite the late hour, she does not seem vulnerable, reminiscing about her past clients, recalling her mother’s favourite stories and discussing the pros and cons of her vocation. Yet someone or something is watching from the bushes and may be malevolent as much as voyeuristic.

Although staged for the first time, Derek Martin’s script is over 29 years old, which accounts for the terminology being a bit outdated—Bessie’s profession is described in more basic terms than ‘sex worker’. Advance publicity gives the impression the play is non-linear, jumping around the centuries and not fixed in time or space, but this is not apparent when watched as, although Bessie recalls her past, the story remains within her lifetime.

It is also oddly unfocused, an episodic collection of character sketches, cautionary tales and mediations on sex work. When the nature of the stalker watching Bessie becomes clear, the play seems to move towards a climax highlighting the possibility men equate sex with violence whereas women may be gentler. But the plot moves on drawing together plot threads to reveal misgivings which Bessie has about her profession and resentments against her mother for pushing her to choose that path. This is an odd development as, until then, Bessie has expressed concerns about her age and a rival but seemed content in her choice.

Bessie at Midnight, Alone is one of a number of productions using the GM Fringe as a dry run to iron out issues before proceeding to other festivals. Although Janelle Thompson has script-in-hand, her performance, particularly the boisterous interpretations of Bessie’s clients, is confident and commanding. Bessie is very much in control of her situation but concerned about her future with a younger rival on the scene.

Period productions are a challenge for fringe companies as limited resources rarely allow the indulgence of lush costumes or settings. Leaving Thompson’s costume partly unfinished neatly avoids this drawback.

Like the author, director Rhonwen McCormack struggles to find a consistent tone. The play is a bit too long and the various plot threads so spread out it is not easy to identify those which are significant. Although the play opens with an ominous tone, the mysterious stalker takes so long to be revealed, the impact is muted. The closing of the ‘stalker’ sequence is used as a catalyst to prompt Bessie to re-think her life choices and admit she has been too compliant, which might have been easier to accept had she shown reservations before that point.

The lack of an overall vision limits the success of the play but, although episodic, Bessie at Midnight, Alone is a well-performed and entertaining collection of tales.

Reviewer: David Cunningham