In the words of Jon Bon Jovi, light entertainment has acquired a bad name.
Guilty by association, it has been condemned through the most mediocre of its manifestations: the noisome inoffensiveness of Ed Sheeran or Michael McIntyre’s capering eagerness to please on his Big Show. But light doesn’t have to be banal, nor entirely without shade. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a listing for Betty! in the Christmas Radio Times, back in the years when ABBA would dignify The Mike Yarwood Show with their seasonal melancholia.
Reuniting writer and lead actor Maxine Peake with director Sarah Frankcom, and returning the pair to Manchester’s Royal Exchange while pedalling on a Goodies-style tandem with co-writer and composer Seiriol Davies, Betty! A Sort of Musical is as delightfully accessible as a big production number on Morecambe & Wise – a sleight of slightness drawing the eye away from the heavier substance at its heart.
Indeed, there’s more than a touch of Ernie Wise’s comedically ramshackle ‘plays what he wrote’ in this ‘sort of’ musical life of Betty Boothroyd, the first female Speaker of the House of Commons.
On the surface, there’s also something of the pattern of Victoria Wood, Peake’s mentor in Dinnerladies, in the weft of the ensemble making up The Dewsbury Players, the amateur dramatic society trod under foot by Meredith Ankle, the local carpet magnate whom Peake weaves into being with the steel wool certainty of a Yorkshire Annie Walker. Ankle is deep in a shag pile of her own devising, having lured the BBC to the West Riding on the fraudulent pretext that her theatrical company is more representative of diversity than is actually the case. If the set-up is for a punchline of farce, that’s something of a feint, although what follows lands with more satisfying force.
Davies’ songs have a foot in both the camp of the original years of Horrible Histories in their affectionate pastiche of the musical idioms of the decades they humour and that of Alan Menken in the emotional underpull of Look In The Dark For That Sparkle, which finds equal time for gutter humour among the stars.
As one of Ankle’s players, Davies as the music therapist Calvin Tudor stands out with a broad wink to the tradition of the double entendre – a couture John Inman fitted out beyond the uncomfortable clothes of off-the-peg caricature. Indeed, part of the production’s irresistible joy is the evident delight with which the cast take in their turns. Joan Kempson’s put-upon Hazel, undercutting Meredith with the kitchen scissors of her snippy sardonicism, times her lines to comedic perfection.
Familiar with the Royal Exchange from her time as its artistic director, Frankcom makes expert use of the whole diameter of its round. In particular, the Brass–like lustre of the call-and-response number, And A Whatnot In The Corner, draws the audience in to its music hall refrain through the very absence of corners in the theatre itself.
The powder in the production kegs detonates in a second act mini rock opera, like Meatloaf in The Rocky Horror Show riding a motorcycle through Prime Minister’s Questions. There’s such conviction in its grandiosity, epitomised by Peake – as Ankle – as Betty Boothroyd descending from the ceiling in the Speaker’s Chair, while the front benches are wheeled in, swathed in dry ice, that it even transcends the over-familiar device of a Bohemian Rhapsody parody, to frame a rap battle between Madame Speaker and Dennis Skinner, and a dance-off between the former Tiller Girl and a River-dancing Ian Paisley. It brings the house down.
And draws the house in. This is a warm and inviting entertainment, lit with something of the fairy light twinkle of the season. It’s a pantomime with a Baroness rather than a Dame, a Christmas Carol in which the Ghost of Christmas Past is the coldest hearted of villains, but at its finale it’s also a musical in which love – and a wet finger – retains the power to put things back to rights.
Like another famous Betty, it’s very much Doin’ the Do.
Photos by Johan Persson
Betty! A Sort of Musical is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until January 14, 2023. Click here for show times and prices.