Review: Betty!, Manchester Royal Exchange

Published in The Telegraph on December 9, 2022

Consider this a spectacular finale to a trilogy about Yorkshire women, from the pen of Maxine Peake: first she immortalised cyclist Beryl Burton, then Hull fishwife Lillian Bilocca, and now Dewsbury’s Betty Boothroyd, the first female Speaker in the House of Commons.

She might not seem an obvious choice for a musical, but Boothroyd did begin her career as showgirl with the Tiller Girls – and besides, this gloriously odd musical ain’t exactly Evita.

Written with Seiriol Davies – whose show about a cross-dressing 19th-century Marquess was equally fabulous – and long-time collaborator Sarah Frankcom, this is a hilariously silly, surreal, and quick-witted musical tribute.

Davies and Peake are part of the cast of six , and the concept is that the (fictional) amateur dramatics group Dewsbury Players are writing their own show about Boothroyd. Audiences love a backstage drama, and this is an affectionate send-up of the in-fighting and eccentricities of am-dram – while excusing and indeed celebrating a scrappy DIY aesthetic.

Peake plays Meredith, their bullying leader, and the stakes are raised when Adrita (Lena Kaur), from a BBC scheme encouraging manual labourers to write, is invited to watch rehearsals under false pretences (Meredith claiming the Players are a perfect selection of tick-box minorities). Resolutely northern in references and spirit, Betty! takes gleeful pops at arts funders’ assumptions about “the regions”.

The performances are perfect. Davies seems to have an entire skeleton of funny bones, and every one of their sprightly songs hits the spot, with dizzying lyrics. Things escalate fast: from sending up the conventions of the biographical musical in flat-capped scenes about Boothroyd’s working class 1930s youth (“Great depression to you, how’s your hardship?”) to high-kicking music hall numbers and high-camp pop-culture pastiche (Boothroyd’s time in Cold War Moscow gets a James Bond treatment) to celebrating her election as a Labour MP via interpretive dance.

But it is once Boothroyd becomes Speaker that things get really wild. I’m not sure I can do justice to the post-interval spectacle that is Peake as Boothroyd in full regalia in the House of Commons, attempting to impose order and civility via a rap battle against Dennis Skinner, a dance-off against Ian Paisley in an emerald-green tutu, and a handbag-swinging “final boss Thatcher” in a glittery blue suit. It’s as audacious as it is ridiculous.

Several of the cast really can’t sing – which might seem a major bum note in a musical. But somehow, they get away with it due to the sort of pluck that seems to embody the spirit of Boothroyd herself – and the fact that they are all extremely funny. I’ve not laughed as much at anything all year as at this absolutely batty Betty.

Where next?