It does my Christmas spirit no good at all to be writing a less than warm review about a Maxine Peake project. The star of Dinner Ladies, Silk, and the rightly acclaimed post-Hillsborough docudrama, Anne (plus a glittering array of theatrical achievements) might not yet have achieved National Treasure status, but the Queen of Cah-Yedd City (aka Westhoughton) is certainly a Regional Treasure.
Moreover, in so many social and political regards, her heart is solidly in the rightest of places.
It is, therefore, with regret that I have to say Maxine’s new venture, Betty! A sort of Musical, is some distance from good.
The premise is clever enough – a Dewsbury AmDram society decide to create a musical about the town’s most famous daughter: ‘Tiller Girl’ turned politician, Betty Boothroyd. Moreover, Maxine has a track record with strong northern women, having made a success of her own script about champion cyclist, Beryl Burton.
The question has to be asked: why present the life of this important political pioneer (the first woman Speaker of the House of Commons) as a comic musical? The answer becomes increasingly clear. Betty’s biography is an interesting story but not a dramatic one. There is a difference between a life that makes for a gripping read and one that will hold an audience’s attention on stage.
Meredith Ankle (Maxine Peake, channelling her best Hyacinth Bucket) is the domineering force behind the Dewsbury Amateur Players. She has instructed her four underlings each to write a piece based on or inspired by the life of Betty Boothroyd. The intention is that one or more of these will form the basis of their musical.
Pre-interval, the bulk of the show consists of these four set pieces, interspersed with sparky exchanges between the group and Meredith. Kalvin Tudor (played by Seiriol Davies) is the sole male in the group; witty and knowingly camp. Carla Henry plays Tracy Bassington, who enjoyed a six-year run in a West End production of The Lion King, before giving it all up for domestic “bliss” in Yorkshire. Hazel Mears (Joan Kempson) is the downbeat full-on Dewsbury woman, a curmudgeonly socialist (the implication being that Meredith is truest of blue). The last of the group, somewhat reluctantly, is Meredith’s daughter, Angela (Eve Scott) who can’t quite bring herself to tell her mother whatever it is she has to tell her (despite egging on from the others).
Always on the lookout for an angle, Meredith has applied for a BBC scheme. Her application has ticked enough boxes for a representative to come to see them. Meredith has, of course, massaged the truth about the Dewsbury Players – painting them as rather more ethnically and socially diverse than they are.
When the representative, Adrita Chatterjee (Lena Kaur) arrives, mid-rehearsal – confidently proclaiming, “I’m the BBC!” – it soon becomes apparent that she and Angela have a secret shared history.
It’s a lengthy (ninety minutes) stretch to the interval and, whilst it doesn’t quite drag (the cast are going at it full tilt), it’s the witticisms and quirks that carry us through, rather than the energy of the plot. We never really feel there’s much at stake here, and even comic productions need that sense of jeopardy. It’s worth comparing the slapstick farce that is The Play That Goes Wrong – a key element is the desperate need of the young director to make it all work. The Dewsbury Players have a portrait of Betty on high, and raise a glass to her, but nobody seems really to care about her legacy (or this show).
Post-interval the ruse is that Meredith, having electrocuted herself on a dodgy tea urn, is in full fantasy mode; cue the kind of effects that only the Royal Exchange can afford, adding colour to amusing nods to Queen, Kiss, the Spice Girls and even Mr Blobby. With Betty in a Speaker’s chair that descends like a lunar landing module, the crowd are greatly amused by Dennis Skinner the Rapper, and Ian Paisley the River Dancer. Anachronistic as it is (and Betty tells us so) even Margaret Thatcher appears for a life or death battle of handbags.
The true highlight of this (45 minute) act is when Peake, portraying Meredith “possessed” by the spirit of Boothroyd, delivers Betty’s farewell speech to the House. It’s a captivating yet all too brief episode of genuine theatre. A glimpse of what might have been, or a sorrowful acknowledgement of a bio-drama that defied its would-be creators?
Genuinely funny lines are spattered throughout, and the hometown audience is eager to laugh their socks off (even on this frosty night). The cast have the kind of fun that sometimes arises out of a team-building rehearsal improv. The question is: how much are you willing to pay to watch six actors having fun?
Betty! A Sort of Musical is at The Royal Exchange Theatre from 3 December 2022 – 14 January 2023.