Edinburgh Festival '99: Reviews

COMEDY Betty Gilded Balloon (0131-226 2151) to 30 Aug
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The Independent Culture
ALAN BENNETT will kick himself for not having thought of Betty, the middle-aged spinster whose washing machine has prompted a sexual awakening of seismic proportions. Geraldine McNulty's comic creation flirts with caricature yet strikes a chord of familiarity. She is a respectable lady, unacquainted with the ways of the world, yet afflicted by an acute sense of morality.

Throughout this beautifully written monologue she is forced, as Bennett's Talking Heads characters are, to reveal her secrets and come to terms with fundamental truths.

Ever since their first encounter - an extraordinary spectacle which sees Betty lying across the juddering white beast, legs akimbo and yelling in delight as the spin cycle gathers pace - she has been unable to concentrate on anything else.

She chatters endlessly with her washing machine and giggles as if it were making an endless stream of lewd propositions. But she is also racked with guilt.

"I am a self-pleasurer!" she shrieks at confession, with the tragic intensity of somebody who has just burned down a church. The priest instructs her to go on a pilgrimage in order to assuage her sins and then asks her to pass her underwear through the grate so that he may closely inspect the secretions of sin.

McNulty effortlessly conveys Betty's brittle inadequacies while underlining her small-mindedness. She is reduced to a mawkish puddle in front of William, the overbearing group leader. Yet a pretty young woman who she takes to be William's girlfriend unleashes an invidious torrent of bile in her.

Betty's naivety is engaging. When asked if she has ever had sex she replies, "I am not sure." An unpleasant incident with William shows her to be horrified by the very idea of sex, but still titillated by the possibilities of auto-eroticism.

There are several occasions when you are steps ahead of Betty. As with Bennett's characters, you feel that she is unaware of the full implications of her tale. But other scenes highlight the fact that she is not always telling us the whole story. She probably would not appear so entirely blameless were the story to be told by Theresa, the pious waif who is mercilessly bullied during the pilgrimage.

Theresa's saintly qualities only come to light when she is found dead in bed one morning. Then the whole group vie furiously with one another over who knew her best.

But McNulty's winning touch in Betty is simplicity. Aside from some subtle light changes, the set remains the same throughout - Betty, a chair and her beloved washing machine - and the success of the show lies in the intimacy with which she delivers her story. At the end we feel we know Betty far better than she knows herself.