LET’S face it, there isn’t much to laugh about at the moment.
But the Royal Exchange might just have the answer to anyone fearing the approaching festive season will be all doom and gloom.
Betty! A sort of Musical is a riotous, at times slightly deranged, often silly and generally heartwarming tale which will leave you shaking your head and holding your sides at the same time.
Written by Maxine Peake and Seiriol Davies who also both take to the stage, it’s the tale of a Dewsbury amateur dramatics society who decide to write a musical about the town’s own leading lady, former speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd.
The group are a collection of misfits who have a common bond one night a week. Maxine Peake is the fairly terrible Meredith Ankle, a domineering control freak who is also a bit of a snob. Her daughter Angela, Eva Scott, is struggling to escape from her mother’s clutches; dance teacher Tracy, Carla Henry, is a former West End performer – “six years in the Lion King and then knocked up by a chartered accountant” – and the wonderful Joan Kempson is Hazel Mears, a world weary pensioner with a great selection of one-liners. Seiriol Davies is music therapist Calvin Tudor who floats about spreading silliness.
The spirit of Betty looms large over the production, not least with the portrait which gazes down on to the performers in the shabby church hall where they rehearse, a great set design by James Cotterill.
The society members have each come up with songs which cover various periods of their heroine’s life from growing up in Dewsbury to being a Tiller girl and, of course, her time in politics.
Often it strays from being Betty to batty. The song And A Whatnot in the Corner includes audience participation and threatens to turn the whole thing into a panto. There are sends ups of Bond films, a reworking of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and the floor of the House of Commons becomes the setting for a rap battle between Betty and Dennis Skinner and a dance off with the Rev Ian Paisley. It really is quite bizarre at times.
But what prevents it from straying into total chaos are the characters and the performances. It’s a celebration of northern-ness (if there is such a word) and as such there are inevitable comparisons with Victoria Wood. But there is just so much going on. There are some wonderfully astute observations about politics, the BBC and people amid all the nonsense and rather than being derogatory about amateur dramatic societies, it’s very much a celebration of people coming together to do something they believe in.
It’s not perfect. The first act is a bit too long and some of the songs are not that strong and at times it was difficult to hear the lyrics. But there are so many laughs along the way and a genuinely heart warming ending, no-one cared.
The cast appeared to be having just as much fun with it as the audience. Maxine Peake channelled her inner Hyacinth Bucket as Meredith before morphing into Betty for the second act. And Seiriol Davies first as Britannia and then a positively scary Margaret Thatcher was clearly having a blast with his own creation.
Director Sarah Frankcom has said that in terms of its sentiment the show is the “most Christmassy Christmas show that the Royal Exchange has ever done”. It certainly has got that spirit of friendship and kinship at its core. But there’s also another Christmas connection – it’s also crackers!
Betty! A sort of Musical, Royal Exchange, Manchester, until January 14. Details from www.royalexchange.co.uk