This year’s festive musical at the Royal Exchange Theatre is the world premiere of Betty! A Sort of Musical, co-written by and starring Maxine Peake. It’s a pretty big deal so we sent both our Theatre Editors to review it!
Jay Darcy (Head Theatre Editor)
Maxine Peake is considered to be one of the country’s finest actors, on both stage and screen. She had her Royal Exchange Theatre debut several years ago, when she played the title character in Hamlet – years after playing Ophelia in another production. This was followed by The Skriker, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Happy Days. I caught the latter two. I was enthralled by her in the former. As for the latter – let’s just say, not even an electrifying actress like Peake, who possesses an abundance of gravitas, can make Beckett entertaining.
After four-and-a-half years, Peake is back at the RX – once again directed by her frequent collaborator Sarah Frankcom, the theatre’s former Artistic Director. Whilst the RX traditionally produces classic musicals over the Christmas season, the new Artistic Directors have shaken things up. Last year’s little-known The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has been followed by a world premiere!
Betty! A sort of Musical follows a Dewsbury-based amateur theatre group, lead by Peake’s Meredith, attempting to create a musical about Baroness Betty Boothroyd – the first female Speaker of the House of Commons and a Dewsbury icon. It’s a play (musical) within a play, going back and forth between reality and fantasy. The play’s wonky meta structure is charming but limiting.
In the first act, the musical numbers are a series of songs, each written by a different member of the group. They are wildly different, each showing off the personality of the writer and establishing a different period/aspect of Boothroyd’s life. It’s genius.
However, the musical fails to provide a satisfactory historical account of Boothroyd. Perhaps that isn’t the point, for Boothroyd is not actually a character in the play, and the characters not quite understanding her is part of the fun – but the play, itself, seems not to understand her (or, at least, not know what it wants to achieve by using her as an artefact).
Boothroyd is a feminist icon, by virtue of being the first female Speaker, yes, but also because of what she had to do to get there – which the play fails to interrogate. Boothroyd’s authoritarianism was a by-product of a hard-fought political career; it was a tool to exert and demand power, control and, most importantly, respect, in a male-dominated space.
The wonderfully camp and comedic opening of the second act shows Boothroyd squaring off with some of her biggest political adversaries – a recreation of her most dramatic Commons’ moments through a spectacular series of rap battles, dance-offs, and duels. The play, understandably, chooses spectacle and comedy over substance and critical analysis; the male grandstanding and cockfighting is abundantly evident but Boothroyd’s uphill battle for respect as a woman is not. The flashy fights render her more a floundering fool than a formidable female leader.
The end of the sequence is a showdown with Thatcher. It’s hilarious, especially because Thatcher is played by Peake’s co-writer, Seiriol Davis, in drag, but it’s also reductive: it literally reduces two fierce female politicians to swinging handbags at each other. Granted, the male politicians are also parodied (Ian Paisley literally breaks into Irish dancing), but portraying our first female Prime Minister and Speaker in such a way has some negative consequences.
This sequence (spoiler) is an eye-opener for the tyrannical Meredith, who almost immediately steps down from her position as Chair of the Dewsbury Amateur Players, finally giving her exhausted inferiors the respect they deserve. But pairing these two scenes together is a little mucky, for Betty and Meredith are not one in the same, and the lovely members of the theatre group, who just want some respect, are not comparable to the sexist pigs in the House of Commons who gave Betty the hardest of times. Of course, this is but Meredith’s interpretation – she sees herself in Betty – but I was a little unsure about what exactly the play was trying to communicate regarding Betty.
I know that the numbers are all interpretations of the amateur theatre group members, none of whom truly understand Boothroyd – but the result is the play, itself, never grasping the gravity of Boothroyd.
Unlike the tenacious Betty, Betty! appears to lack a driving purpose. The lack of clarity in the play’s philosophy is a problem, and it’s a big one, but it’s also the only one. Everything else is epic!
The script is wonderfully written, with constant comedy, even when things get serious. There’s romance, betrayal, injury, drag and Thatcher – everything but the kitchen sink! Yet, it never feels overstuffed or unnecessary; it’s deliberately excessive and ridiculous.
The music numbers are brilliantly bad. As contradictory as that sounds, one must commend the writers and actors for their enviable ability to pull off good bad writing and acting; they truly have mastered the art. It’s easy to write and act terribly; it’s incredibly difficult to deliberately write and act terribly. The incredible, real-life, professional actors are playing incredibly bad amateur actors – and they do it so well.
The play requires audiences to have at least a little understanding of late 20th century political history – at the very least, a familiarity with the political bigwigs of the day. Harriet and I are both political junkies (I’m a Politics graduate), but even we were a little unfamiliar with a few references to politicians and nods to 90s pop culture and happenings. The humour, too, is definitely aimed towards a particular crowd – the exact folk you expect to see at the RX – but it doesn’t alienate others; it welcomes everybody to be a part of the fun.
Betty! A sort of Musical is not an intelligent interrogation of Baroness Boothroyd, nor does it pretend to be. It doesn’t even pretend to be a musical. Whilst it, arguably, trivialises her achievements, it is a witty celebration of the formidable politician that tackles an abundance of issues and themes, through the microcosm of a relatable, loveable, diverse community group.
Harriet Cummings (Deputy Theatre Editor)
I had the privilege of meeting Maxine Peak during the Women in Media Conference back in June. As someone already in awe of her work, I was numbed by her self-effacing but inspiring advice. In fact, when I was interviewed for the role of Deputy Theatre Editor back in July, I was asked which upcoming plays I desired to see in the next academic year. Betty! A sort of Musical was the first on my list.
Written by and starring Maxine Peake (Hamlet, Happy Days) and Seiriol Davies (Milky Peaks, The Messenger), Betty! is a play that encapsulates the life of Betty Boothroyd (well, sort of).
For those who aren’t familiar with the name – in 1992, Betty became the first female Speaker of the House of Commons. Betty is celebrated for sacrificing any chance of private life to become a progressive, scrupulously fair, no-nonsense figure in political history.
The plot focuses on a small drama group in Dewsbury (Betty’s hometown). Each member of which has prepared a small number that they think would best commemorate Betty’s life. The comedy style matched that of Dinnerladies – a nineties show qualifying Maxine Peake as a household name. The target audience was undoubtedly of the same generation. Sometimes an uproar of laughs responded to a name-drop of a politician/celebrity figure that Jay and I had never heard of. But the comedic material was so cleverly written that I still found myself irrepressibly leaning forward in a physical chortle.
All six actors displayed talent in abundance. The difficulty of portraying an amateur rather than a bad actor is an unfathomable artistic task that the cast executed effortlessly. I cannot credit enough the beauty behind casting a diverse group of actors/characters and not forcing the plot to revolve around that fact. The slippage between prejudicial slurs thrown away by Meredith (Maxine Peake) and the wholesome relationship this little local drama group have for one another; gathering every week for some time away from a useless husband, grandchildren, or a monotonous job in the carpet industry, was heart-warmingly fluid.
Thatcherism, patriotism, Irish dancing, a drag Britannia, the BBC, the Cold War, Mr Blobby, and the Houses of Parliament. A list of things I didn’t believe would ever belong in a sentence together, but this charmingly eccentric story made sure they did. Knowing where to start when reviewing such a funny, moving, bizarre, whirlwind is incredibly difficult. A wind machine being another stage effect this play didn’t abandon. As well as a model of Big Ben descending from the ceiling, upside down. The audience was set to indulge in everything the showy, garish side of theatre had to offer.
I typically try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, especially a long-standing production like Betty! However, I will divulge the ending of this hilariously camp story left me moved. I was situated in the relationship between these charming characters. I witnessed Meredith’s veil dissolve. And the others return to their everyday life with a swift exit through the drama hall door. The play was over, but their realness stayed with me.
Betty! A sort of Musical runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until January 14.