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ComedyMusicalNorth WestReview

Betty! A sort of Musical – The Royal Exchange, Manchester

David Cunningham

Writers: Maxine Peake and Seiriol Davies

Music and Lyrics by Seiriol Davies

Director: Sarah Frankcom

The antics of the current crop of MPs have driven public respect for politicians to an all-time low. This makes it a bit hard to accept the premise behind Betty! A sort of Musical- constituents paying tribute to, rather than burning in effigy, their local MP.

The Dewsbury Players are a motley crew. Producer/director Meredith Ankle (Maxine Peake who co-authored the book) is an unrepentant Thatcherite while Hazel Mears (Joan Kempson) is a world-weary socialist. Meredith’s daughter Angela (Eva Scott) is chafing against her mother’s domineering attitude while an injury has reduced Tracy Bassington (Carla Henry) from West End musicals to more humble work. Music therapist Calvin Tudor (Seiriol Davies who co-authored the book and wrote the music and lyrics) is, according to Meredith, Welsh and weird.

But the players are united in their efforts to celebrate the life of local MP Betty Boothroyd on the stage, each contributing part of the script. They are, however, unprepared for Meredith stretching the truth to attract a BBC producer to watch their efforts. When the producer, Ad Chatterjee (Lena Kaur) turns out to not only be from the area but an old friend of Angela, things get even more complicated.

The influence of the late Victoria Wood is apparent in Betty! A sort of Musical. Maxine Peake adopts the staccato, declamatory vocal style used by Julie Walters in Wood’s parodies. Working class cliches are mocked with Northern characters tipping their flat caps and wishing each other a ‘’Great depression’’. The script is cheerfully parochial playing on audience awareness of local places (‘’This is Dewsbury not Leeds’’ as though the latter is the height of culture) and drawing humour from the mundanity of life with a lunch in Harrogate spoken of in awe.

However, the description of the show as ‘a sort of musical’ is accurate as it is very uneven and its nature hard to determine. Most musicals open with a song or feature dialogue leading to a musical number. With Betty! however, it is some time before the singing starts and there are lengthy stretches of dialogue before a collection of songs grouped together. Seiriol Davies opts for pastiche rather than original numbers. There are songs in the style of, well, pretty much anyone- a James Bond number, Queen and even Beethoven.

The first act is over-long while the second is so short as to amount to an extended encore. Act One keeps to the premise of a play within a play – The Dewsbury Players presenting scenes from Boothroyd’s life in a suitably ramshackle manner. The format is close to a revue comprising short sketches, songs, and dance and the set is sparse and props minimal. The approach limits the extent to which the characters can develop. It is possible some of Boothroyd’s experiences parallel those of the characters (her socialist principles and dancing career reflect, for example, those of Hazel and Tracy) but in the main, the cast is limited to telling the story rather than exploring the characters. There is a tentative mood as if a variety of ideas and styles is being tested without settling on a single unifying theme.

This may, in part, may be due to the nature of the subject. Finding drama in a political life which does not involve scandal is challenging. Apart from becoming the first female Speaker of the House of Commons the only distinguishing feature that springs to mind about Betty Boothroyd is that, before entering politics, she danced professionally as a Tiller Girl. Yet the play lacks confidence in how to utilise this feature. As the Dewsbury players are amateurs the dancing is kept to a basic level and the dance-off in the second half is played for laughs rather than to illustrate technical expertise.

Director Sarah Frankcom and set designer James Cotterill, however, move away from the revue format and pull out the stops for the second act. In the manner of A Christmas Carol Boothroyd faces three challenges (Dennis Skinner, Ian Paisley and Margaret Thatcher) each appearance cued by a tolling clock. The atmosphere is a deliberately over-the-top rock opera complete with a dry ice, pomp rock soundtrack and Maxine Peake descending from the ceiling in the speaker’s chair. Such a sharp contrast to the first act gives the impression of two shows rolled into one – a revue and a slick crowd-pleaser.

The disjointed production limits the success of Betty! A sort of Musical making it more a collection of sketches than a fully rounded show.

Runs until 14 January 2023

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The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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