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'Hilarious': Liam Laurence Smyth reviews 'Betty! A Sort of Musical'

Maxine Peake as Betty Boothroyd | image © Johan Persson

Liam Laurence Smyth

3 min read

Engaging in plenty of dramatic license, this brilliant new song and dance show perfectly captures the character of Madam Speaker

A coldish coming we had of it, in the first weekend of December, converging on Manchester from London, Surrey, Oxford and the Isle of Man; we six current and former clerks (and a couple of spouses) with some 230 years of clerkly service between us. The star drawing us on: Maxine Peake. The stable: the Royal Exchange Theatre. The discovery, barely out of its rehearsal swaddling clothes: the very first preview of Betty! A Sort of Musical, a fantabulous new song and dance show for the pantomime season which pays tribute to Baroness Boothroyd, whom all of us had served in various capacities from near and far during her years as a Labour MP, a former deputy chairman of Ways and Means and – most famously – as the first woman speaker. 

The great dome of the old cotton exchange above the theatre in the round is hidden from view by the dingy strip-lit polystyrene foam ceiling of a community hall in Dewsbury where a handful of amateur thespians are putting together a tribute to their town’s most famous daughter. Taking liberties with the protagonist’s life story, but paying attention to telling details (yes, Big Ben is the name of the large bell inside the Great Clock), the show high kicks its way through decades of contemporary cultural references from Love on the Dole to Mr Blobby.

After four unsuccessful attempts to get elected, Betty Boothroyd becomes one of only 27 women in the House of Commons (and only the 95th woman ever elected to the House) when she wins the West Bromwich by-election in 1973. An apparent outsider joins the drama group, only to be swept up into playing a personification of Erskine May (the book, not the clerk) who offers the lifelong Labour stalwart, now representing West Bromwich West, the Faustian bargain of taking the Speaker’s Chair if only she will give up her distinctive voice.

She was the most unstuffy of politicians, a quality which Maxine Peake catches to perfection

But Madam Speaker (whose real-life motto on her coat of arms is “I speak to serve”) triumphs in the Chair through her distinctive Northern no-wig and no-nonsense impartiality, trouncing Beastie Boy Dennis Skinner in a rap battle, winning a hilarious Riverdance-off with the Reverend Ian Paisley and (“that’s not historical”) confronting Margaret Thatcher, a very different female politician, before she eventually leaves the Chair with her trademark punchline: “Time’s up.”

The packed-out preview audience loved it. We did too, agreeing that despite their extensive dramatic licence the authors captured perfectly the parts of Baroness Boothroyd’s character and career which we had observed ourselves. She was the most unstuffy of politicians, a quality which Maxine Peake catches to perfection, with so much more interest in people than in ideology. Maxine Peake wrote the book of the musical with Seiriol Davies, who also wrote the music and lyrics. Sarah Frankcom directs a brilliant ensemble comprising Maxine Peake, Seiriol Davies, Eva Scott, Lena Kaur, Carla Henry and Joan Kempson. Catch it while you can – this first run is due to end on 14 January.

Liam Laurence Smyth is clerk of legislation in the House of Commons

Betty! A Sort of Musical
Directed by: Sarah Frankcom
Location: Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 14 January

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