Lewis Davies was at the Royal Exchange in Manchester to see Betty! A Sort of Musical, a new musical comedy created by Maxine Peake and Seiriol Davies, a heart-warming celebration of the human spirit and the unexpected rewards that can come from thinking outside of the dispatch box.
This is brilliant. Betty! A sort of musical is a show that that delights in upending the genre while laughing all the way and along with it through panto, musical theatre and onto Brecht and The Three Penny Opera. Written by Seiriol Davies and Maxine Peake, and directed by Sarah Frankcom, Betty! is currently packing them in at the Royal Exchange, Manchester with the co-authors in starring roles. Peake is already a star, Davies is on the way. It is a wonderful reaffirmation of what good actors can do with a few chairs, music and sharp words.
The story opens in a sparse village hall, all strip lighting, four cast members, and one faulty tea urn – the Didsbury Players are meeting to prepare their new Christmas show – a musical on the life of northern glamour girl and political icon Betty Boothroyd. They have some set left over from last year’s Miss Saigon. The show’s director and lifetime stalwart of the Players, Meredith Ankle (Maxine Peake) is a perfectionist and is once again over-reaching for the stars. The long-suffering cast begin to discuss replacing the director, even if for one of them she is also their mother, they want a new start, Calvin Tudor (Seiriol Davies) has big new ideas but the director has one more ace. She has written to the BBC who are going to send a man to see the rehearsal. Stardom beckons and one last chance for Ankle – who has suggested the theatre troupe are all low-income manual labourers or possibly refugees to help with the Arts Council funding. At least one of them is from Manchester, another is part of an exploited underclass looking after her grandchildren while Tudor is “Welsh and a little bit odd”.
The play within the musical enfolds with warmth and humour bringing understanding to Boothroyd’s progress from beloved only child growing up in the poverty-stricken Thirties, through to professional dancer and chorus girl and onto political activist, aspiring MP and possible spy for the Russians or even a double agent for the Conservatives. She becomes one of the most popular of modern parliamentarians when she is elected as Speaker in 1992. The music riffs on everything for Dvorak’s bread advert to Queen.
All this is conveyed with panache even while the strife and troubles of the Didsbury players continue, arguing, plotting, hoping for a new start even if the man from the BBC turns out to be a woman called Adrita.
At the end of the first act I wondered where the energy and material was going to come for a second act. What did I know? These are famously impossible in politics but not in musicals. The play explodes in a supernova of musical comedy with Betty (Maxine again) in full regalia as she fights the Battles of Boothroyd. In a quick succession of inventive singalong specials and some delightfully rude jokes she gets one over Dennis Skinner as rap artist DS, the Reverend Ian Paisley reincarnated as Lord of the Dance Michael Flatley and finally in a thumping confrontation, Margaret Thatcher as a Michael Keeton/Beetleljuice inspired zombie from dawn of the dead (I think). This is all tremendous, high-energy performance fun.
Seiriol Davies, credited with the book, music and lyrics brings the full force of his love of the West End combined with a rural Welsh upbringing of eisteddfodau performances to this show. His 2016 hit How To Win Against History about the mad and wonderfully exuberant 5th Marquis of Anglesey had rave reviews at the Edinburgh fringe before touring nationally and ending up with a sell-out run at the Young Vic.
I’ve been to a few musicals where the only thing I want to do at the end is run for the exit but I’d stand in line in the rain for the next play from Davies and Peake.
Betty! A sort of musical runs the Royal Exchange Manchester until the 14th January. Information and tickets are available here.