Betty! A sort of Musical

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In their local village hall, The Dewsbury Players: a unique blend of am-dram performers, have come together to celebrate their finest export and local hero, Betty Boothroyd, the first female Speaker of the House of Commons and arguably one of politics most fascinating characters.

With their individual visions on how best to do Miss Boothroyd justice, not to mention their wildly varied beliefs, the players are committed to uniting artistically to create a musical Dewsbury will never forget. The problem is, director Meredith (Maxine Peake) has falsely informed the BBC that the group offer a tad more diversity and community value than in reality; so, when BBC exec Adrita (Lena Kaur) turns up to rehearsals things take a rather creative and chaotic turn.

This play-within-a-play created by Maxine Peake and Seiriol Davies (who also stars as Calvin) is a riot. It’s bonkers, brilliant fun with a gorgeous message of love and acceptance at its heart. There’s laugh out loud political parody and some absolute genius lines while the script touchingly shines a light on each of the wonderful characters making up the group. Their observations on life are spot on, sharp, witty and entirely relatable.

The musical numbers are where the creative team have really had some fun, poking a gentle ribbing at traditional musicals; there’s enthusiastic choreography, musical theatre clichés and heart-warming solos all delivered with tongue firmly in cheek. Musical director Sarah Dyer leads a slick four-piece band who demonstrate an incredible range as they deliver both rousing ballads and rock-tastic numbers with precision.

Maxine Peake leads this ensemble cast brilliantly, firstly as demanding director Meredith, sniping constantly at her cast despite desperately needing them to fulfil her dramatic ambitions. Then second act she is transformed into the straight-talking, charismatic Boothroyd ready to take on the House in the challenges that befall her.

Co-writer Davies is a treat as Calvin, bursting with enthusiasm and a mediator to all, he delivers some of the shows most memorable and outrageously over the top moments brilliantly. Eva Scott portrays Angela, Meredith’s subdued and self-conscious daughter beautifully, showing her versatility throughout as she channels her inner confidence spurred on by the arrival of former friend Adrita.

Joan Kempson displays sharp comic timing as Hazel, the salt of the earth grandma who blasts out the one-liners and is poles apart from condescending Meredith. Carla Henry is a joy as Tracy, a former West End star who’s light still shines in Dewsbury despite her issues with her hubby at home and her weak ankle. I cried laughing at her Ian Paisley, no spoilers here but I’ll never hear Riverdance and not think of her performance. Lena Kaur’s take on BBC exec is spot on whilst her second act transformation is inspired.

Betty! A sort of Musical does exactly what it says on the tin, gives you a belly full of laughs and leaves you with a smile on your face. There are musical numbers which could maybe benefit from a little trimming, but this is a minor quibble on what’s a brilliantly entertaining show. This heady reminder of days when politicians stood for decency and duty is a whirlwind of hilarious, heart-warming fun. A welcome and well observed reminder of the importance of community and common ground.

Betty! A sort of Musical is on at the Royal Exchange until Saturday 14th January tickets available here.

Images Johan Persson

Beryl

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The sport of cycling is currently in the midst of a golden age here in the UK.  Through their exploits at the Olympics and the Tour du France, cyclists such as Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Laura Kenny (was Trott) have become household names and an  inspiration to thousands of people across the land. However, way before any of these came along, Britain had Beryl Burton and Beryl was every bit a hero as these fine riders.

Beryl is the fascinating true story of a strong independent Yorkshire lass, who  refused to be beaten and did things her way. She won countless championships, set records, broke records, and managed to stay at the top of her game for 25 years. 

Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Vicky Binns bring Beryl to life, with Longhurst as the child Beryl who contracts St Vitus’s Dance aged 10. The illness caused a weakening of the heart and a loss of control of the limbs. The infection saw the young girl confined to hospital for nine months, as well as having a huge impact on her confidence. 

When she leaves school, Beryl meets Charlie Burton (Chris Jack), a local lad with an interest in cycling. Charlie’s passion becomes Beryl’s obsession and soon she is competing in races, first at county level,  then nationally, and inevitablycompeting at the cycling world championships, all this whilst holding down a full time job and raising a family. 

At first glance this is the classic underdog story we are so familiar with, but dig a little deeper and you couldn’t be further from the truth. This woman was always going to be a success through hard work, guts, determination and sheer bloody mindedness: success was never in doubt.  Maxine Peake’s script is a love letter to this unique, amazing lady filled with warmth, humour and plenty of charm. It ditches the usual sporting clichés in favour of celebrating its subject and having fun.

Under the excellent direction of Kimberley Sykes, the cast of four are in fine form, injecting plenty of spirit into the production and all showing a gift for comedy. Vicky Binns puts in a strong, feisty turn as the adult Beryl  she really gets to the heart of what spurs her on. 

Chris Jack is equally fine as Charlie, turning in a warm, heartfelt performance as the devoted Charlie. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is clearly having fun as the young Beryl and later Beryl’s daughter Denise: her facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission. Finally, Matthew Heywood plays pretty much every other character in the play including an overzealous German fan and a rather dour Yorkshire copper. Heywood like his fellow cast members puts a great comedic performance.

All four should be commended for their work as this is a physically demanding show, with lots (and I do mean lots) of cycling, think a spin class with a plot and you’re on the right track! As each cast member dart about the theatre and hop on the strategic placed bikes around the theatre you become immersed in their world.

There is very much a ‘punk’ vibe to the production, cast members often break the fourth wall, coming out of character to address the audience and each other. The use of contemporary pop songs despite not being of that era, and the cast’s DIY approach to special effects creating their own inclement weather using a leather blower and some water pistols give the production a carefree, easy going charm.

This is an inspirational story delivered in a funny, touching but never sentimental fashion. Old and young alike will find something to admire about the show which will certainly leave you wanting to find out more about Beryl and her extraordinary achievements, whilst it may inspire you to dig out your Raleigh Chopper from the shed. Beryl’s story is ripe for a silver screen adaptation so catch it Bolton whilst you can.

Beryl is at the Bolton Library and Museum till the 19thOctober. Tickets available here.