Traditionally, the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Christmas musical is a revival of a classic that has not been seen in the West End or toured the UK in some time. Think Into the Woods, Sweet Charity, Guys and Dolls, The Producers, and Gypsy. However, new Joint Artistic Directors Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise have decided to mix things up a little bit.
Last year’s Christmas musical was the little-known The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, more a ‘play-with-music’ than a traditional musical. I was surprised by the show’s announcement, given the theatre’s usual Christmas musical, and the show itself had me shook. It was not your typical, funny, feel-good, festive musical, but I found it rather fabulous, nonetheless.
This year’s musical is a world premiere – and, again, it isn’t really a musical.
Betty – A sort of Musical is sort of about Betty Boothroyd, the first female Speaker of the House of Commons. It’s a play (musical) within a play, in which an amateur theatre group attempt to put on a musical about Baroness Boothroyd OM PC.
“As the first female speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd is a Dewsbury girl to celebrate, and the five ladies (plus Calvin) of The Dewsbury Players are going to do just that… through the medium of musical theatre! Their high-kicks may be wobbly, their acting ‘enthusiastic’ and the props left over from a production of Miss Saigon; but, tonight, the Village Hall is their theatre of dreams! Emboldened by their heroine’s indefatigable tenacity, this amateur group prove themselves to be extraordinary women on and off stage.”
The sort of musical is written by and starring Maxine Peake and Seiriol Davies. Peake, an Associate Artist of the Royal Exchange Theatre, first performed there as the title character in Hamlet (years after playing Ophelia in a different production). Peake is considered one of the finest Hamlets the country has ever seen. She then starred in The Skriker, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Happy Days. I caught the latter two: Streetcar was brilliant; Happy Days, meanwhile, was, well, Beckett.
Peake has had a super successful screen career, appearing in TV series such as dinnerladies, Shameless, and Silk. Earlier this year, she starred in two four-parters: Anne and Rules of the Game. On the big screen, she’s known for The Theory of Everything. She also played the lead in an episode of Black Mirror, Metalhead, and nobody can forget her chilling portrayal of Myra Hindley in See No Evil: The Moors Murders.
Betty is directed by Shanahan and Weise’s predecessor, Sarah Frankcom, whose professional relationship with Peake goes back years – even before Peake was an icon. Frankcom directed all of the RX productions that starred Peake so it’s exciting to get another Frankcom-Peake collaboration at the RX, now that Frankcom has left the organisation.
Betty: A sort of Musical began its run at the Royal Exchange Theatre on December 3; it runs until January 14.