Manchester Theatre Awards

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Betty (PUSH Festival)

Louise-Clare Henry
Fly In Your Soup Theatre
HOME, Manchester
20 January 2017 to 22 January 2017

Fly In Your Soup Theatre is a physical theatre company, which makes Betty an unusual choice. Based upon taped interviews played throughout the show it is essentially verbatim theatre but the staging, using mime and puppetry, avoids the dry presentation that often bogs down that style of drama.

The script by Louise-Clare Henry (who is the sole performer and also constructed the puppets) is based upon interviews with her grandmother about her great grandmother, Betty. Henry, wearing a rather severe mask – stern eyes, thick spectacles, Brillo Pad perm and a disapproving mouth, plays the title character. This seems to be an accurate representation as the storyline takes Betty from a dance-loving character through a somewhat inadequate mother into the onset of dementia.

Actually the ‘puppet’ version of Betty is the least successful part of the play. The mask is immobile and Henry can do little to suggest a lonely existence than sit in a corner of the stage and occasionally totter about. Only Betty struggling against a cacophony of car horns gives a sense of the creeping corrosive effects of her illness. The puppet for the young version of her daughter – loose-limbed and fragile – is much more engaging hanging her head in shame against her mother’s scolding.

Henry dispenses with the mask to portray Betty in her younger years. With her slender frame, short dark hair, thick spectacles and severe clothing she is such a dead ringer for a certain television presenter it is hard to resist shouting ‘Bake!’ Music is an essential element in the storytelling: setting the period feel, forming part of the pre-war courtship rituals and giving Betty a rounder, more sympathetic, aspect.

Director Martha Simon sets a deceptive tone that at times becomes disturbing. Henry’s movements as the younger version of Betty are slightly exaggerated bringing to mind the comedians of the silent screen. A sequence of Henry crashing to the stage or running headlong into a table has a clownish aspect until it dawns that Betty is trying to induce an abortion.

Betty is a gently uplifting play showing the influence of past social conventions upon the development of the title character and bringing out her wider aspects so offsetting the formation of critical judgements. All of the characters portrayed by Henry are flawed and form what would, nowadays, probably be classed as a dysfunctional family. Great grandmother Betty was not a nurturing mother and so house proud she kept her daughter in a locked room to minimise any untidiness. The grandmother, being a restless spirit, left her two children in the care of their father and went wandering. Yet there is no sense of resentment and the subtle point made is that these developments caused no lasting psychological damage to the family who remained close, demonstrating the strength of family bonds.

Details of Betty and other shows in the PUSH Festival are available at: http://homemcr.org/event/push-festival-2017

Reviewer: David Cunningham