Betty Boothroyd's legacy had somehow passed me by, I’ll blame age for that one! She was (and still is at 93) a feminist icon, having become the first ever female speaker in the House of Commons in 1992. This new musical written by Maxine Peake and Seiriol Davies, with direction from Sarah Frankcom, makes sure that no one will forget about Baroness Boothroyd!
The staging is minimal and this works in the shows favour. The stackable chairs placed on the wooden floor with its white lines, transport the audience to Dewsbury church hall. Above this, the relatable characters more than gave me flashbacks to numerous amusing evenings at Slimming World at my local village hall. The entire cast were faultless from the hilarious Joan Kempson who embodied salt-of-the-earth Hazel, to Seiriol Davies as friend-to-all Calvin. Everyone watching this will quickly recognise people they know in at least one of the characters which only adds to its charm.
This musical is joyously relatable and unapologetically Northern, with its characters who make up the Dewsbury Players. The acting chameleon that is Maxine Peake plays the group’s leader Meredith Ankle, striking a seamless balance between stern and camp for comedic perfection. Wanting to pay homage to a local hero, she declares that they are to put on a production honouring Betty Boothroyd.
You needn’t expect a west end style glitzy affair… after all the title does say ‘sort of’ musical. With no big opening number, the first song doesn’t appear until 15 minutes in, however the music is superb. Songs are purposely performed without musical theatre ‘pizzazz’, keeping it believable that we’re seeing non-professionals putting on their own production. Songs such as ‘And a Whatnot in the Corner’ and ‘Our House’ capture a show full of heart and warmth. With Baroness Boothroyd slowly descending from the ceiling, the stand out song is without a doubt the genius ‘Boothroydian Rhapsody’ which had the Royal Exchange in stitches.
It pokes fun at the awkwardness around sensitive subjects in less cosmopolitan areas. Afraid to talk about sexuality, Meredith describes two others as ‘always a little odd’ and ‘unmarried’ in an innocent yet utterly hilarious way. Living in another northern market town, I have witnessed these sorts of moments and it was great to see real life depicted so well on stage. The comedy really is where this piece shines brightest. I mentioned to my partner at the interval that this could easily have been written by the late, great, Victoria Wood. I don’t think a higher praise exists for good old British Comedy!
Although I barely noticed time go by during Act 1, it perhaps could have been cut slightly to allow for a longer second act, which felt criminally short. Pacing aside this was absolutely the laugh out loud tonic we all need right now. It was flawlessly chaotic from start to finish, in the best possible way.
Midway through Act 1 it is proclaimed that everything good ends up in London… this is clearly not the case for this fantastic musical which is playing exclusively at the wonderful Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until 14/01/2023. See below link for full details and booking information.