Seiriol Davies and Maxine Peake
Royal Exchange Company
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
December 3, 2022-January 14, 2023; 2hr 20min
It’s funny, clever, entertaining, and musical, with a little education thrown in: Betty! A Sort of Musical certainly defies expectations.
Seiriol Davies and Maxine Peake's show isn't a straight political story of the rise of a showgirl to Speaker of the House of Commons, and its constant belief in the power of ordinary people to effect change by working together is intensely political and uplifting.
The curious title is accurate, by the way: the music takes a while to appear - as does Betty - and their style and delivery constantly change.
Betty Boothroyd's story is told not through Tiller Girls-style numbers nor, for the most part, through set pieces of parliamentary procedure we’ve become more familiar with over the past few years. It's actually a story within a story, about an amateur theatre company writing and rehearsing its own work in honour of its local heroine.
We open to a gathering of the Dewsbury Players, a group of five amateur actors presided over by Meredith Ankle (the always-terrific Maxine Peake), a cross between Hyacinth Bucket, Mary Whitehouse, and a Victoria Wood sporting a strangely, strongly, unpleasant streak.
When the music starts it’s a revelation: a mix of styles, a mix of voices, and a peppering of familiar tunes - even a bit of Beethoven - within the array of original work composed by Seiriol Davies, who also appears on stage.
The harmony with which the six-strong cast works is a constant in a changing world. Davies gives a stand-out, assured performance as Calvin Tudor, the only male in the group, while Eva Scott, as Angela Ankle, Meredith’s downtrodden daughter, uses an exceptional dance style and singing voice to highlight the caged potential of the character. Meanwhile, Joan Kempson excels as Hazel Mears, a part that appears to have been written for her skill in comic timing and one liners.
Designer James Cotterill brings the changing decades to life: sets, costumes, furnishings, and decor are beautifully gathered and replicated, some gaining their own applause.
The show is cleverly and constantly surprising, even with the woven-in predictability common in mainstream musicals: the main characters have some personal problems requiring a solution, and of course by the end of the show they’ve taken early confident steps towards a resolution. A faulty tea urn, again predictably, takes a different path.
The show is an imaginative celebration of Betty Boothroyd’s ideas: a belief in the importance of allowing everyone’s voice to be heard, and in the importance of working together, whatever your talent, to achieve the best results. Despite caricatures, it’s intensely human. And it is marvellously funny, full of one-liners worthy of our most popular comedians, and maybe just as likely to sell out.
It needs a few more days for the cast to fully adjust their performance to audience laughter, and there could be improved sound balance so we can hear vocals fully on some of the louder numbers. An unconventional Christmas entertainment, perhaps, but a fun and affectionate one.
Info and tickets here