By Charlotte Robertson
The KXT Bordello Room is delightfully intimate and 'life after productions' have imaginatively assembled a murder mystery drama which explores stereotypes in the silent film era and subverts them, never ceasing to enthral. Set in England during the aftermath of Word War I, BETTY BREAKS OUT offers poignant glimpses into the social trauma experienced at that time through its characters, silent film actressBetty (Annie Stafford) and leading man Fred (Tommy Misa).
The show begins with Betty singing, Stafford’s strong, emotive voice fills the room. She is positioned sitting behind a sheer curtain which symbolises the silver screen, playing the accordion. The melancholy lyrics by Liz Hobart and the alluring tone created by Alexander Lee-Rekers’ music foreshadows the show’s focus on the struggles of an actress during the silent film era. It is a perilous existence for a young and spirited working class Betty on and off the screen.
Betty soon appears to be the damsel in distress often seen in early silent films, as she is abducted and locked within the confines of a small room. However, she quickly breaks out of that stereotype becoming quite the determined, courageous heroine. Stafford is captivating and magnetic as the vivacious Betty. She has a compelling stage presence and her mannerisms are stunningly intricate. A light bulb flickers on and off whilst Betty pleads with her kidnapper to keep it on and Sophie Pekbilimli’s lighting design successfully builds tension in the scene.
We are later introduced to working class actor Fred, locked up in the next room. Much to his disappointment, he was not given the opportunity to fight in WWI and be “an ‘ero” as he calls it.
Thus, his overwhelming desire to be a masculine hero led him to make a shocking compensation...Misa gives a very nuanced and charismatic performance as Fred particularly when he converses playfully withBetty - they have an undeniable rapport.
Post WWI silent films were a form of escapism from reality and essentially tried to cover the weeping wounds of the war with false depictions of heroism. Both characters divulge the façade of the film industry through their tragic personal stories. Liz Hobart’s impeccable writing shines in the monologues reflecting the hardship experienced by both characters and their dark pasts. BETTY BREAKSOUT is based on The Second Nick by Maurice G. Kiddy, Hobart’s great-grandfather who experienced WWI firsthand. One of the many powerful lines that stuck with me was “Soldiers sound like silence, they talk with their guns”. Ellen Wiltshire has done a brilliant job in her direction, bringing to life such moving subject matter with flair and panache.
The split stage is effective as it successfully gives the impression that both actors are in two separate rooms. Well done to Isabella Andronos as the set is atmospheric and evocative. The actors do not make eye contact for the majority of the performance which I imagine would be difficult, yet there is still an unfaltering connection between them. The choreography is polished, fun and clever especially when they position themselves back to back on their chairs, or when Fred literally becomes a door with Betty peeping through, showing alternating ways to give the illusion they are in different rooms. It is clear the actors have done plenty of physical work and the melodramatic movements are deeply engaging, one example being when Betty raises her hands to her mouth and mimes screaming. The characters mumble softly during transitions which is fascinating and effectual as it’s though they’re talking to themselves in their ‘confined’ space.
BETTY BREAKS OUT adopts many different characteristics of silent film incorporating music, melodrama, camp choreography and comedy. Music plays an essential and paramount role in the communication of feeling and emotion in silent film and Lee-Rekers’ compositions definitely do so in this production. A musical highlight for me would be when Betty and Fred passionately sing about being “born to play a part”, which is charming and thoroughly enjoyable. Throughout the show Betty and Fred go behind the sheer curtain screen to mockingly perform melodramatic snapshots with captions focused on love turning to treachery and overbearing masculinity which was reminiscent of many films in the silent era. Unfortunately, I couldn’t always read the captions on the sheer curtains as they were sometimes bunched up which was a shame. I read enough to acknowledge it was commenting on the systemic sexism of the time and the fact that women often served the male protagonist’s story - which is still overwhelmingly relevant in the film industry today.
Towards the end there were some pacing issues and I would have liked to have seen a bit more of a climax. Nevertheless, BETTY BREAKSOUT is a true gem featuring marvellous talent and should not be missed!
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.