How much fun can you have in a theatre, both the audience and the cast, that is? Manchester’s Royal Exchange has taken the notion to a new level, with Maxine Peake’s riotous Betty! A sort of musical. This joyous, silly, exuberant and fast-paced world premiere was co-written by Peake, who plays the lead role, along with Seiriol Davies, who shines as camp Calvin and also wrote the music and lyrics, and it’s based on the most unlikely of national treasures, Baroness Betty Boothroyd.
It’s sort-of the story of Betty’s life, as portrayed by the amateur Dewsbury Players, but it’s much more than a sort-of musical, more a fantastic pastiche of the genre and possibly the funniest of its kind since The Producers hit the stage. The crazy numbers, some original, some derivative are delivered with all the jazz-hands panache of a Broadway hit, including the achingly-funny “Wet your finger to pick the sequins off the floor”. Take note, Strictly competitors.
But why this life? Betty Boothroyd was born in Dewsbury, made it to London to perform with the high-kicking Tiller Girls dance troupe, and when a foot infection cut short her dancing career she followed the branch of her socialist roots to become Labour MP for West Bromwich and ultimately the last great (in our opinion) Speaker of the House of Commons. She was scrupulously fair and impartial, famed for her brusque, Yorkshire-accented cries of “Order!” and “Times’s up!”, and adding occasionally a little theatricality to the role. So not the most obvious choice for an am-dram group, but the only one they can agree on.
We know Dewsbury, and we know am-dram players, and this team perfect the “Dyoosbury” accent, while mirroring the kind of misfits often drawn to the amateur stage, often with more good intention than talent but who nevertheless manage to create magic. Sparkling in this sphere is Tracy (Carla Henry), the young mum escaping domestic drudgery for brief moments in her own space, where she really does get the chance to shine.
There are more than a few shades of the genius of Victoria Wood in the snappy script: “Avant garde? This is Dewsbury, not Leeds”, proclaims doom-monger Hazel (Joan Kemspon), and we saw the very strong influence of some of Wood’s best characters. It was, of course, in Wood’s Dinner Ladies that Peake first made her name, as Twinkle. Here she plays the domineering, autocratic Meredith, mother and producer, in the manner of Julie Walters’ Boadicea Overall, while her submissive but ultimately triumphant daughter Angela (Eva Scott) could be a second cousin of Wood’s Kimberley. And into their church hall lives strides BBC producer Adrita (Lena Kaur) who stays around for a surprise happy ending.
So the stage is set throughout Act One, the story of Betty’s youth peppered with the greeting “Hello, Great Depression to you”, and the wonderful scene in London when the Tiller Girls’ dance mistress introduces Betty with “Please give this Northern girl help with the indoor lavatory.” Where would it go from here? Into the realms of the surreal, that’s where, as Act Two insists We Will Rocky Horror Show You. Here’s Betty with her ceremonial mace crying “Order” in a spoof Bohemian Rhapsody, and ultimately losing the battle of the handbags to a grotesquely overplayed Margaret Thatcher, Seiriol Davies in one of many brilliant incarnations. In between we have a rapping Dennis Skinner, and the Rev Ian Paisley doing Riverdance.
This is another triumph for director Sarah Frankcom who works this magnificent theatrical space to its best effect. And it is truly a tribute to Baroness Boothroyd, now in her 90s. Frankcom says: “We found that there are a lot of people who hold Betty in huge warmth and affection, and celebrate her virtues. I think people are really interested in being in the world of Betty. We should all be in the world of Betty for a bit.” And as Seiriol Davies points out, you don’t need to be familiar with her character: “It only takes a couple of anecdotes about her and then they fall in love.”
But it’s very difficult as a reviewer to do justice to this production in words, other than “absolutely must see it”. If you don’t cry laughing at this wonderful piece of escapist theatre, we’ll give you a whole month’s free subscription to Mag North!
Runs until January 14. Tickets and details: HERE
Header Image: Maxine Peake