revew: Maxine Peake & Seiriol Davies – BETTY!
BETTY!: A sort of Musical/
book by Maxine Peake/
music and lyrics by Seiriol Davies/
dir by Sarah Frankcom/
design James Cotterill/
Royal Exchange Theatre/
03 Dec – 14 Jan 2022//
Saint Betty: counterrevolutionary
BETTY! is selling the icon. She is a precocious child, she is a steadfast adult; she is from Yorkshire, she is from the working class; she is obstinate, she is innocent. When Betty is a dancing girl, she learns how best to pick up shed sequins from the floor: keep your finger wet and the sequins will stick to it. Obviously, it’s funny in a Carry On way to sing about making sure you keep your finger wet, and so we get a song about it. Grubbing about and picking up sequins isn’t dignified, nor is it particularly rewarding – but it teaches Betty the value of keeping her head down and her knees on the floor until those in power give her what she wants.
At this point in her life, the ingenue Betty also learns to dance – keeping her knees up and her kicks high. Pay-off comes in a second act dream-sequence, where Betty must out-dance Ian Paisley* to prove her mettle as the new speaker of the house. Betty’s journey sees her putting to use the skills she learned while downtrodden and trampled, with a touching reprise of ‘Keep Your Finger Wet’ to remind us of the value of her humble beginnings.
The dramaturgical language of the musical makes Betty’s humble beginnings central to her later success. Betty succeeds because of her persistence and ability to keep her head down, both of which are a result of those who outclass her treating her like shit earlier in her life. Only because class-based oppression exists can Betty exceed and rise above her class to provide inspiration to those now beneath her. Very smartly, the mechanism of the poor’s oppression is a tight blanket, both to coddle and to restrict them.
BETTY! isn’t a musical about Betty Boothroyd. The premise, actually, is that a Dewsbury group of amateur dramatics are putting on a musical. They’ve decided to collaboratively write their own, inspired by the first woman speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd. But. There is a sickness in the air. Meredith Ankle, the troupe’s director, is a tyrant and a bully, who pulls all things towards her, making of this small troupe a tiny solar system orbiting her luminous ego. This individualist model of making theatre is hurting all others involved; they are fed up, belittled, tired and jaded. But. They believe in the show, or they believe in the power of theatre, or they have nothing better to do and so they hand in their homework to Meredith and build their musical together.
BETTY! is a musical which attempts to explain how people are politically immobilised. Part of the mechanism is living in thrall to parliamentary democracy. Every member of the Dewsbury troupe of amateurs has an unshaken faith, not only in Betty Boothroyd, but in the undiluted good that the role of speaker of the house serves. The play begins with a song about ‘Who Will Speak’ for England, for her citizens. They waste no time discussing exactly how Betty Boothroyd being speaker of the house gives voice to others. Their belief is the one thing which unites all of them, and goes unquestioned throughout. The impression then, that the musical is a piece of uncritical saint-making is defanged by the fact this is a play-within-a-play. The inhabitants of this Dewsbury rehearsal hall are wholly credulous, they have collectively fully bought the myth and are evangelists for the theoretical purity of parliamentary democracy.
Saint Betty then enters the parliamentary pantheon. The amateur devisers aren’t concerned with historical accuracy, which they state unambiguously in the middle of a cold-war espionage montage. The process through which saints are made is one of image-making. The role of Saint Betty does not dwell in a single performer, because she is their shared icon; at different moments she must represent different things. The main role of Saint Betty is as a reframing of old parliament. In the second act, we begin inside the unconscious mind of Meredith – a vision in which Boothroyd must contend with Dennis Skinner, Ian Paisley, and the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, all under the tutelage of the tome of parliamentary conduct itself, Erskine May. Parliament is not an ancient, obscure book! Parliament is being rewritten! Parliament is a scrappy Yorkshirewoman who knows what it is like to dance and crawl around picking up sequins!
The way the troupe conceptualise Boothroyd is as a departure from the past. She is a woman, she is (for a chunk of the story) young, she is from Yorkshire – not just Yorkshire but Dewsbury! She is Not Like Those Other Politicians. But then, she is not like the troupe either. For Betty’s story to make sense, she must be exceptional. For her person to pull in and have the story orbit around her she must be unique. So while they celebrate that she came from them, they also celebrate that she is unlike them, that in transcending, she left them behind.
So why are they all here? They’re here because they make shows – that’s what they do. Even when they mount a coup and oust Meredith as company director, they continue making the show in more or less the same way they did before. They never consider their rehearsal process has made its way into the content and subject matter of their work. The individualist model is inside them, they express it without thinking, they do not even notice it is there. The idea of representation being empowering is made a mockery by Meredith’s cheating of the BBC’s funding criteria: Meredith commits the sin of applying for funding under false pretences, for which she is chastised but suffers no material consequences. The show goes on. Though she is a bully, Meredith’s methods work. She entices to visit their rehearsal a BBC producer, who is impressed.
Betty Boothroyd didn’t wear a wig: she used her own hair. A positive change, maybe, but in the wider scheme of things it feels trivial and cosmetic, compared to the momentum which the troupe build in the first half of Betty’s story. The story they end telling is one of a woman who began her political career as a feminist interruption to the Labour youth movement, and ended it making sure parliament ran as smoothly as possible.
It’s not that I think every piece of theatre should be a conscious part of the revolution (although yes of course I do please revolt now thank you), but the premise of BETTY! gives such an open goal for any criticism of our parliament and system of government. The play instead suddenly retracts at the moment Betty becomes speaker, changing the focus in an alarming way. Meredith has been electrocuted by the tea urn, and although she is a tyrant, everyone does love her, and is concerned for her safety and health. What prevents these Dewsbury rehearsal hall actors from a broader perspective and more communal action, is the immediate material conditions they find themselves in. They cannot afford for their world to be large, because their small world is too hazardous, and too fragile.
BETTY! in the end clearly expresses how our little island ties its little people in knots. We have to trust in the speakers, the lords, the members, because if we spend too much of our time and effort challenging them, we will be hurt by the creeping violence of our circumstances. If one of us can escape, that should give us hope. But we can’t all escape, for then there’d be nowhere to escape from.
*The Telegraph’s review misidentifies Paisley’s traditional Irish Feis as a ‘tutu’ which really bothers me and is either a sign of cultural imperialism or that their critic simply didn’t go to Catholic school and I should get over myself (or both).