Review: Betty! at The Royal Exchange is “like a Lancashire hot pot, warm and filling”

Betty! A Sort of musical is a big and bold show choice for the Royal Exchange this Christmastime
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The Royal Exchange has always delivered a big and bold choice of show for Christmas and January.

And it has always offered an alternative to anyone seeking something a little bit different, during a time of year where tinsel, glitter, plastic sprouts and turkey dominate.

Betty! A sort of Musical is a celebration of the life and achievements of Betty Boothroyd – the first and only Speaker of the House of Commons.

But this is no biopic treatment, the great lady is seen through the lens of an amateur dramatics group in the north. They are putting on a show and someone from the BBC is coming along, following some dodgy claims about diversity on the original funding application by matriarch Meredith Ankle.

Meredith Ankle (Maxine Peake) is essentially a Victoria Wood character, the sort that Julie Walters used to play remarkably well. She reminds me of Petula from Dinnerladies, particularly the way she recites her past.

She is the matriarch of the Dewsberry Players and they are about to stage a musical version of the life of Betty, with props left over from their much derided take on Miss Saigon which you could afford to miss.

Credit: JOHAN PERSSON

From the minute this spirited and funny show begins, you are reminded just how much we need to laugh right now. And thankfully Maxine Peake and Seiriol Davies’ book delivers on the comedy front, weaving double entendres, references to Hob knobs and tea urns, alongside ‘being cancelled’, climate change and stereotypical depictions of life in the North of England.

As we watch this troupe try to stage something on a very tight budget with love, passion and determination, you cannot help but think about where we have been the last three years, and how great it was to return to the stalls. And Sarah Frankcom’s lively and very funny production is no exception.

The players hold the show together with their brilliant physical comedy, great comic timing and their warmth which makes you feel involved. Eva Scott brings may layers to Angela Ankle, Meredith’s lonely daughter who has put her life on hold for her mother. The lyrics of Doris Day’s “Secret Love”could be written for her. And this terrific performer captures her longing incredibly well.

Seiriol Davies delivers such a show stopping turn as Calvin that it is difficult to take your eyes off them. Versatility is their key and they also play Maggie Thatcher and more with real oomph and chutzpah.

Lena Kaur plays Adrtia – a visitor to the group from the BBC and she begins as a fly on the wall but soon you realise she is linked to this group, and the show really flies at this point, as the knockabout comedy is replaced by something really poignant and touching.

Carla Henry displayed her comedy chops at Filter Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whilst we sat socially distanced at Homeground, outside. And here she gets the chance to do that again, and she excels, reveling in the high kicking aspects of this comedy with musical numbers as teacher/actor Tracy.

Joan Kempson is queen of the one liner, as she pauses before she fires and she highlights why she is a ‘go to’ choice for this type of role. She is brilliantly funny and also gets to dress up and sing and own the stage as Hazel.

James Cotterill’s set design is something really special and the house of commons becomes aa gig venue of epic proportions In his capable hands.

The first half of this show is way too long, the giveaway sign is patrons leaving during the show, headed for the toilet. It needs balancing out a bit, as there are plenty of places where the first half could finish and it is a shame because some of the more dramatic moments in the show feel a bit wasted, as you may find yourself dancing around in your seat, desperate for a wee. The dramatic impact would be enhanced if the first act finished after 60 – 70 minutes.

Sometimes Peak and Davies’ book flits between drama, as camp as Christmas comedy and bonkers moments featuring scary spice, Maggie Thatcher, rap spoofs and Mr Blobby and tonally, it does to try to do much.

Fans of Victoria Wood will feel that this show is reminiscent of what she produced on TV and the stage and that’s not a bad thing. She is truly missed, so to see something in the same vein is something that is truly welcome.

There is the odd overcooked moment but for the most part Betty is like a Lancashire hot pot; warming, filling and deeply satisfying.

Betty! A sort of Musical is at the Royal Exchange until 14th January and tickets can be booked here.

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