Theatre Review - 'Betty Blue Eyes'

Posted by Alexander Hay

Hogging the limelight in Cameron MacKintosh's new musical

A singing pig, yesterday

It is rare to find the star of a musical being an adorable animatronic pig with a permenant smile and a personality of its own. But this is indeed the case with Betty Blue Eyes (Novello Theatre), adapted from Alan Bennett and Malcolm Mowbray’s 1984 film comedy A Private Function.

The year is 1947 and in austerity Britain belts are being tightened, while food rationing aims to provide fair shares for all, although some citizens are more equal than others, namely the town councillors. The country experiences the coldest winter in decades but everyone is heartened by the fact that a royal wedding is imminent – that of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Set in Yorkshire backwater, the story centres around Betty, the blue-eyed porker of the title who is being illegally reared to ensure that the local dignitaries can celebrate the forthcoming royal wedding with a lavish banquet while everyone else makes do with spam. But the local chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers, who has his heart set on acquiring new premises on the high street, only to see his hopes dashed, his socially pretentious wife Joyce and a group of local businessmen are eager to supplement their rations before the festive “private function”, find themselves having to hide the pig in the house.

On the prowl is the evil Inspector Wormold, dressed in Nazi attire, intent on tracking down illicit meat products, who delights in daubing the meat products he confiscates with green paint, as a sign of pork signed “Pigasso” crosses the stage. His mission? “To keep illegal pork from each immoral fork”.

This timely, warm, lovable, and frequently hilarious comedy musical, cleverly reworks the original Alan Bennett screenplay (the book is by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman), yet retains his themes of social pathos and frustrated dreams, while the satire of small town snobbery, greed and racism is as sharp as ever.

 Songwriter George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe give the eccentric characters glorious musical expression with their witty, inspired score which includes the best song ever written about verrucas, a duet performed with clothespegs on the nose, and a Lindy-hop in an air raid. And for good measure, in one of the show’s most memorable moments, there’s a cherishable dream sequence involving Prince Philip performing a soft-shoe shuffle with his hands behind his back!

Archive footage of the period projected on a large screen, together with Tim Hatley’s versatile set, adds a strong sense of authenticity, while the fast pace ensure our interest never flags.

Director Richard Eyre elicits a truly accomplished performance from Sarah Lancashire, who combines real feeling with perfect comic timing as the chiropodist’s wife, and in one astonishing scene is transformed into a shimmering diva, and an equally commendable one from Reece Shearsmith, combining mildness, decency and charm as her husband Gilbert. Strong support is provided by Ann Emery as Joyce’s 84-year-old mother and Adrian Scarborough as the obsessed, sadistic meat-inspector.

And let’s not forget the scene stealing performance from blue-eyed Betty, the remarkably lifelike pig with a voice like Kylie Minogue!

Runs until October 22

Box office: 0870 950 0921

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By Laurence Green

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Alexander Hay

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