”Betty! A sort of musical” at Royal Exchange Theatre – review

Maxine Peake in Betty! A sort of musical
Maxine Peake in Betty! A sort of musical
© Johan Persson

At the turn of the millennium, after eight years as Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd declared “time’s up”. Just as she was a disruptor and counterpoint to the political class, this show, co-written by Maxine Peake and Seiriol Davies, takes a similarly flippant look at how she got there.

It’s located in her Yorkshire hometown and James Cotterill’s convincing community hall set, with dull wood floor, polystyrene ceiling tiles and fluorescent LED batten lights. It’s a simple, tired space in which the ‘Dewsbury players’ assemble to rehearse their Betty tribute performance. They and the design are used to remind us of her modest origins, as well as parallel group leader Meredith as a proxy Boothroyd, both of whose strength of will and vision are similarly mistaken for domineering unreasonableness.

But this production itself also falls short of understanding her. It doesn’t convey her authoritarianism as the byproduct of a sedulously hard-fought political career and the only mechanism of control for a woman dwarfed in a male bear pit of grandstanding and cockfighting. Instead, her cries of “order” amidst the rowdy group numbers and disco-lit frivolity render her a floundering fool.

Rather than illuminating her life or making a statement, its fluffy surface view and unrelenting irreverence trivialises her achievement. Even when it notes her remarkable effort to become one of the minimal female MPs, it’s then mocked with an exaggerated expressionistic dance about that toil. A later showdown with Margaret Thatcher reduces these two female political titans to swinging handbags at each other.

The small cast also initially struggles to ignite the space and her story which occasionally feels arbitrarily chosen. The play’s framing device – staging an amateur production with deliberately unpolished vocals – makes it hard for the show itself not to share the same rough quality. With almost all of them playing her at different times, we lack a consistent central figure to develop a detailed sense of who she was. Its giddy glance over her life events is directed by Sarah Frankcom with lurching kicks of blithe energy.

However, it sparks and fizzes in a riotous second half. Her most dramatic Commons moments are retold in rap battles, dance-offs and duels, with mirror balls, neon and sequin suits. If the show doesn’t mine Boothroyd’s biography, it thoroughly mines the comedy of a life defined by finding herself in varyingly outlandish or unlikely situations, from a stint as a Tiller girl to evading the KGB. Peake and Davies’ book reflects this heightened edge with absurd lines like “A new decade slips out of the uterus of time” and humour pitched at an older audience who’ll be more familiar with her.

Peake is arch fun in both imperious roles. As bumptious Meredith, she’s cloaked in a purple shawl she fans out like a cobra flaring its hood. Her entrance as Boothroyd has the same regal air, descending from the ceiling on her Speaker’s Chair like a heaven-sent monarch. She’s “not putty to be shaped” but hard granite. It makes her dawning realisation about the impermanence of power and need to eventually stand aside more affecting. When she sings “Is this my house?” she slips off-key as though tremulously self-doubting.

This show might only be a sort of success, but its fond celebration of the character means the answer to its repeated question “What would Betty do?” is that she could only admire and enjoy it.