Review of Betty! A sort of Musical at Royal Exchange, Manchester.
Meredith Ankle (Maxine Peake) has a plan to ensure The Dewsbury Players will be the talk of the West Riding. Determined not to be outdone by their Batley-based rivals’ upcoming production of Frozen on roller skates, her amateur-dramatics group are developing a production that will celebrate local hero Betty Boothroyd, in the form of a new musical.
Like Maxine Peake’s previous plays, Betty! A sort of Musical (co-written with Seiriol Davies) is focused on showcasing the achievements of women and putting their stories centre stage. Humour has often been a feature of her writing, and it is again this time – even more so.
Structurally however, Peake’s previous work has been quite conventional in approach – not something you could say about Betty! This collaboration with Davies doesn’t just use a play-within-a-play format to entertaining effect, it plays fast and loose with factual detail, and often veers off into fanciful flights of frivolity.
The Dewsbury Players’ rehearsal room squabbles punctuate a series of scenes and songs charting Betty’s journey from her hometown to the House of Commons. Each of the Players have been tasked with developing depictions of key stages in her life, which results in a giddy mix of genres and styles.
Betty’s early family life is the cue for a very funny send-up of grim-up-north cliches – including a call-and-response song about a ‘Whatnot in the Corner’. While her time with The Tiller Girls gets the full backstage showbiz struggle treatment. There’s even an OTT 007-inspired Cold War spying adventure loosely based on an encounter with the KGB.
If the first half has lots of fun with the over-heated artistic ambitions of the am-dram troupe – the second is dominated by a full-force fantasia played out on the floor of the House of Commons. Betty’s most brutal parliamentary tussles are elevated to epic musical proportions courtesy of Davies’ effervescent ‘Boothroydian Rhapsody’.
With a dramatic flourish, designer James Cotterill’s set effortlessly transitions from village hall to parliamentary chamber. Cotterill’s costumes bring glitz and swagger to the fusty historic setting, with even Betty’s Speaker’s gown sparkling brightly – more Met Gala than dispatch box.
Sound-wise, some niggles from Press Night have been dealt with, and now dialogue and lyrics can be more clearly heard, and the sort-of-singing (it’s that type of musical) is more tuneful and smoother on the ear.
While Peake creates much merriment in the guise of overbearing (and decidedly conservative) director Meredith, the production is more than a vehicle for her talents. If anything, it’s a billboard-sized calling card for Seiriol Davies – an opportunity for Manchester audiences (who may have missed the glorious How to Win Against History’s brief visit to HOME a few years back) to appreciate Davies’ musical and comedy genius, and experience their work writ large in that main space. Marvel at the wide-ranging musical menu all you want but neglect those clever and often witty lyrics at your peril (“don’t get hoodwinked by amontillado bravado” indeed).
Among the strongly-cast ensemble, Joan Kempson’s nowty no-nonsense retiree Hazel stands out. Kempson knows how to deliver a killer line – even when ensconced upon a chair, her barbs punch at full height. I also enjoyed Royal Exchange regular Carla Henry, whose thoughtful unshowy performances don’t always get the attention they deserve, revelling in the chance to showcase her comedy skills, as well as some hectic hoofing.
Best not to dwell on the script’s thinly drawn characters, or that I seemed to come out of the show knowing less about Boothroyd than when I went in. Better instead to enjoy this well-oiled production in the moment – in all its toe-tapping, high-kicking, wisecracking, glad-ragged glory. Betty! is sort of many things, but what it is most definitely, is a crowd-pleaser.
Performances seen on 8 & 29 December 2022.
Betty! A Sort of Musical runs at the Royal Exchange from 3 December 2022 to 14 January 2023.
Prices – standard tickets start at £10 for banquette seats, a limited number of £7 Under 30s and Pay What You Decide tickets are also available.
Images by Johan Persson