Culture: Theatre

Interview: Celine Hispiche


Performer Celine Hispiche is the producer of a new musical BETTY MAY – TIGER WOMAN versus THE BEAST. She tells Alex Hopkins all about the impoverished girl from Limehouse who became the toast of bohemian London.

Tell me about your background.

I had to run away from home when I was 14. We are not always blessed with the best families, so I’ve always sort of been on my own. Although I never had a great education I taught myself and applied to places like the Royal Court Theatre and got into their writing workshops. I was a featured writer there when I was 28 and at 17 they put my first play on LBC. I went on to spend time in New York and performed in comedy clubs on Broadway. It was while I was in New York that I really started to get into history, particularly old fashioned cabaret. I’ve always based my act on history and I love to know how the baton has been passed on and how we got to where we are.

How did you discovered Betty May and where did the idea for a musical come from?

I was outside a pub in Soho about 10 years ago and a man approached me and said that I reminded him of Betty May. He told me that I should play her and so I began to look into her. I found that she had a similar life story to me – we were both run aways – and the more I read about her the more I felt that we could have lived the same life in different times. It was uncanny and this really intrigued me.

I couldn’t follow through with the idea for a while as I was touring with a band. But one night I was doing a gig in a really rough pub in Charlton, right by the River Thames. I looked out, across the river, and thought ‘is that Canning Town?’ which is where Betty May was born. I asked someone and was told that it was. I’m not into spirits, but at that moment I heard someone say ‘are you going to do this musical?’

From there I really started to research the period. The scene back then was bohemian, underground and very edgy. They had lots of primitive ragtime and Russian silhouette puppets – it was quite surreal. I spent a lot of the time in the British Libray with Betty May’s autobiography in front of me and really immersed myself in the past.

What drew you to the character of Betty May?

She’s an individual, a unique, strong woman and a go getter. She was tough, but also feminine. She wanted to make her life better and I like all of that.

Betty May

Tell me about Betty May’s life. What is the story of the show?

In a nutshell she was a woman who was looking for love, found love and then lost love. She was born in poverty and came from a loveless family life. She went through a few men before meeting Raoul Loveday, who was a lot younger than her. He was her true love and she completely fell head over heels for him. Loveday had an interest in magic, the occult and Egyptology. He was also fascinated with Aleister Crowley. They ened up meeting and Loevday became Crowley’s secretary and together they set up the temple in Cefalu. This was where Crowley took all his people and Loveday took Betty with him. There was a ceremony, a cat was sacrificed and apparently the next day Loveday died. Betty then came back to London and decided to bring Crowley down in court.

Aleister Crowley is an intriguing character who seems to crop up a lot in stories from the period. Tell me more about the part he plays in your musical…

When Betty May challenged him in court it was a huge story in the newspapers and I have press cippings that I found as part of my research. There was some really sick stuff going on, with things being sacrificed and all sorts of shenanigans. Someone stole letters from Betty May’s home and there was a sort of cult going on. She fought her case and so did the artist Nina Hamnett.

Crowley is certainly a fascinating character. As a person he was a very intelligent man and a fantastic mountaineer. They still have a Crowley yoga programme in India and he managed a six piece gypsy band. He used to consult Winston Churchill and Ron Hubbard, the founder of scientology, was hevaily influenced by him.

In our show Crowley is the arc of the drama – he is our caped fear. He is not in every scene, but we have him pop up and we recreate the sacrifice of the cat on stage. This was one of the most difficult scenes to write and the script flew along after this had been done.

You’ve said that you’ve read Betty May’s autobiography. How close is the musical to her book?

I’ve taken the book as a spine and I’ve pulled out all the people she was associated with to make a great cast . From her book I went on to research them. I’ve even met people who were related to her, her ancestors. I was with Betty May’s niece in Oxford and I also met the painter Augustus John’s son. We also have a connection with Nina Hamnett and her nephew might be coming to the show.

Betty May’s niece told me that when her aunt would walk into a room everyone’s head would turn. We found out where she was buried. Sadly, she was put in a pauper’s grave . I don’t  know what happened to her towards the end, but she lived until 86 and was buried in Kent.

She was a real party goer in her day and loved attention. She used to do a party trick where she’d get on all knees and pretend she was a cat as she licked whisky out of a saucer. She was a born performer and loved life. People were drawn to her by her beauty and we know that the newspapers loved her.

What do you try and capture in the music? What style can audiences expect?

From my extensive research of music hall you would have imagined that that was the popular sound. Music producer Tris Penna showed me some original music on a wax cylinder on the grampahone and it was really primitive ragtime, really high energy. It was their equivalent of the rave scene now. Everything was very underground and they all party hopped and were cutting their hair in bobs way before Louise Brooks. They all had their individual looks.

Has there been much work documenting Betty May’s life before?

A film was made about her, but has yet to be released. No one has portrayed her life and times in a way that can go on to the stage. My feeling at the moment is that there are too many juke box musicals and musical theatre needs some edge.

What are your future plans?

I have a pipeline of other musicals I want to do through my production company, de sapinaud productions, and they’re all based on true history. My thing now is to be in the back seat. I’ll still do cabarets, but what I really want to do is produce as many brilliant west end musicals as I can.

Words: Alex Hopkins

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