“Another little victory for little England”
With a book by Ron Cowen + Daniel Lipman, adapted from the story of the film A Private Function by Alan Bennett + Malcolm Mowbray and with a score by George Stiles + Anthony Drewe and marking a rare excursion back into producing from Cameron Mackintosh, Betty Blue Eyes is a new musical at the Novello Theatre with a lot of names credited on the poster! Set in Shepardsford, a Yorkshire town in 1947 at the height of post-war austerity (and previews, which this was, are being sold at austerity prices!), the plot follows Gilbert Chilvers a chiropodist and his frustrated wife Joyce, chafing under the restrictions of the time and who yearns to be accepted into the higher echelon of society where she believes they belong. They are not having much joy until they happen upon a secret plot by the town council to hold a feast for this elite in honour of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s impending marriage at which an illegally kept pig will be the star of the banquet. So, this being a comedy, they steal the pig.
But it is about something more too, over and above the farcical shenanigans with Betty the pig, especially in the more reflective first half. This is a society struggling to come to terms with the enduring impact of the Second World War, the melancholy ‘Magic Fingers’ in particular looking at the wives left behind, as rationing hits hard, threatening to dampen the spirit of those just trying to carry on living in hard times yet still nurturing their own dreams and ambitions. And this is where Stiles + Drewe’s score comes into its own, suffused with a beautiful warmth: it really is stuffed full of tunes, their comical songs are deliciously witty whilst advancing the story, there’s simple but affecting emotion in the balladry and more than once, I found myself just swaying along with a grin on my face (and not just because Liza Minnelli was just a couple of seats away from us). It all has that kind of nostalgic feel that makes for easy recognition and it is a score I wanted to hear again from the moment the show finished.
Joyce is at the heart of this show, despite the title, and she, much like Pat in Flare Path, has to come to terms with decisions made in wartime and reassessing her personal ambitions in light of the realities of being a married woman. And Sarah Lancashire really pulls it off as the star of the show. Dancing and singing like a dream, her ‘Nobody’ is one of the show’s highlights and she pulls the show through whilst the first half clicks into place around her. Reece Shearsmith as her slightly dippy husband is a likeable everyman figure but could do with squeezing a little more winning charm into his stage presence as he tends to blend into the ensemble a little too much, he is the leading man after all, but he is lovely to watch. And Ann Emery as Mother Dear who lives with this couple is a scene-stealing genius, bringing the house down with a mere look and incredibly sprightly on her feet at the end of the show hoedown.
This is an ensemble just oozing quality though and it shows from the main supporting characters right down to the smallest cameos which were spot on in their execution. Personal favourites included Kirsty Hoiles’ prim Mrs Allardyce and Jack Edwards’ tender-hearted Henry Allardyce (he is one of at least three performers from the recent Sweet Charity), Ian Conningham’s Sergeant Noble (who no matter what he says, should wash his hands afterwards!) and Dan Burton’s Prince Phillip impersonation to name but a few. David Bamber’s devious Councillor Swaby is well done, though the character’s casual anti-Semitism is causing a little rumpus (it is a sensitive subject but it has to be said it is time-appropriate and not really gratuitous) but the other ‘villain’ Adrian Scarborough’s Meat Inspector Wormwood is a curious character, dressed up like Allo Allo’s Herr Flick and uncertainly pitched between pantomime villain and fetishist which didn’t always work for me.
The ensemble deal well with Stephen Mears’ fabulous choreography: the Lindy Hop routine prior to the interval is just fantastic and I loved the stylised townswomen’s movements to ‘It’s an Ill Wind’. But what is really testament to the talent here is how evenly spread the vocals are, uniformly strong (this bodes extremely well should understudies be called upon) but almost everyone gets a chance to shine, with the two different trios of ladies, the first for ‘Magic Fingers’ and the second singing ‘Lionheart’ as Billy Carroll’s Trio particularly impressing.
In a year that has been acclaimed the year of the British musical, I am going to stick my neck out and say that Betty Blue Eyes will be among, if not the best of the bunch. There are slight quibbles to be sure (and not just the fact there is a animatronic puppet animal in here, it is a bit freaky with its constant head movements so I couldn’t watch it for too long) but not enough to stop me from giving this a whole-hearted five stars and the strongest recommendation in its tribute to the indefatigable post-war spirit, something we could all learn from with the endless threat of cuts today, although I’m not sure how many people will be rushing out to create a Spam banquet for Wills and Kate’s impending nuptials…! Betty Blue Eyes is sweet and warm and funny, well-danced, well-acted, well-sung, Kylie’s in it (well, her voice), Liza loved it, seriously, what more do you want?!