Politics is a kind of performance. Betty Boothroyd, first female speaker of the House of Commons and one-time dancer, certainly knew this. Maxine Peake and Seiriol Davies’s new show celebrates Boothroyd’s particular brand of parliamentary theatre, as well as shining a spotlight on the more ordinary performances taking place in village halls and community centres up and down the country.
Billed as a “sort of musical”, Betty! is not short on songs (music and lyrics by Davies), but neither is it trying to give Boothroyd’s life the full jazz hands treatment. In their script, Peake and Davies have wrapped Betty’s story inside a show within a show, as the bickering Dewsbury Players put their heroine on stage. Domineering director Meredith (played by Peake) calls the shots, but discontent is building among the group, while the imminent arrival of a BBC talent scout piles on the pressure.
The show tacks back and forth between the interpersonal dramas of the amdram troupe and their enthusiastic attempts at staging the life of Boothroyd (also played by Peake). There’s a wonkiness to the whole endeavour, which is both its charm and its limitation. Davies gleefully toys with musical theatre convention, using the amateur framing to poke fun at some of the genre’s affectations. There are some great gags, but the script sometimes feels as though it’s labouring to take us from one joke to the next.
Sarah Frankcom’s production is at its best when playing up the ridiculous theatricality of parliament itself, with its archaic rituals and outlandish costumes. During a fever dream of a second act sequence, Peake’s Boothroyd proves herself in the role of speaker, facing a set of trials including a rap battle against Dennis Skinner. It’s silly, surreal and often very funny.
But the show never quite decides what it’s trying to do. While it paints an endearing portrait of Boothroyd, it only depicts snippets from her life. There’s a strand questioning the very nature of parliamentary democracy and its ability to give people a voice, but this is quickly dropped. Likewise, the narrative of the Dewsbury Players fizzles out with an all-too-easy resolution. There’s lots to enjoy here, but – unlike the tenacious Betty Boothroyd – it lacks a driving purpose.
At the Royal Exchange theatre, Manchester, until 14 January