Entirely on a whim and knowing little about this show in advance, I decided to catch a matinee of new musical ‘Betty Blue Eyes’, with music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and based upon the film ‘A Private Function’ by Alan Bennett (which I have not seen).
It is 1947 and the impending marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip is the only event the malnourished locals have to look forward to, with a banquet arranged to celebrate and a pig, Betty, reared illegally to provide the feast. However, local chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers (Reece Shearsmith) is not only not invited to the celebration but is also cruelly stopped from achieving his dream of a ‘shop on the parade’. In retaliation he and wife Joyce (Sarah Lancashire) devise a plan to steal the pig and hilarity ensues.
No, really, it does. On paper, this show does not sound like a hit, however the performances are so strong and the music so catchy that I fail to see how anyone can leave without a smile on their face. Sarah Lancashire is feisty and funny as piano teacher and social climber Joyce, showcasing such wonderful comic timing and a strong singing voice that will no doubt surprise fans of her television work. She stops the show with her Act One number ‘Nobody’, a song with all the hallmarks of a classic that has the potential to become an anthem for anyone that has ever felt condescended or patronised, doing for middle aged women what Defying Gravity does for teenagers! Reece Shearsmith is similarly wonderful as the downtrodden Gilbert, infusing his performance with such charm and heart that you root for him from his very first line. His solo number, ‘The Kind of Man I Am’, is the polar opposite of ‘Nobody’ yet equally as memorable and genuinely moving.
The supporting performances are equally as strong, with Ann Emery a real highlight as Mother Dear (‘she’s eighty-four!) and a misunderstanding near the beginning of Act 2 allows her to really shine in ‘Pig No Pig’, the most laugh out loud number of the show, superbly executed. ‘Painting by Heart’ allows recent Best Actor Olivier winner Adrian Scarborough to give a bit more depth to the law-abiding Inspector Wormwold, in a very different role he seems to be having lots of fun with. Jack Edwards is sweet and funny as Henry Allardyce and his love affair with Betty is more touching than perhaps it should be!
There is certainly not a weak link in this cast and while it is true some songs are more memorable than others, you will be humming title track ‘Betty Blue Eyes’, the Act 2 opener ‘Another Little Victory’ and recurring track ‘Magic Fingers’ for weeks. Stiles & Drewe have really captured the essence of the period, with catchy music and witty lyrics. You may be able to guess some of the rhymes before they have been uttered, but rather than seeming predictable, this only adds to the charm of the piece. If you live in London, you will just get the songs out of your head before you see a poster on the tube or on the side of a bus and you will be transported right back into the theatre!
The book, by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, is warm-hearted and witty and allows time to get to know each of our main characters. It seems quintessentially British and so it was a genuine surprise to find the writers are in fact American. The set is simple by design; utilising stage revolves to good effect without ever being spectacular. However the choreography by Stephen Mear makes great use of the stage, particularly in ‘The Primrose Ballroom’.
But what of Betty Blue Eyes herself? Those expecting a real pig should not be too disappointed with this animatronic alternative, complete with fluttering eyelashes and realistic snorting! I was close enough to see her in good detail and she is certainly a scene-stealer! She is not on stage for as long as the advertising may suggest, however I believe it is just the right amount of time for the audience to anticipate her next appearance without becoming bored.
Overall, I was extremely impressed with this show and would recommend it to anyone. There is some mild swearing those wishing to take children should perhaps be aware of, but ultimately it is certainly a show that has a wide appeal and can be enjoyed by all ages. I saw a preview performance and yet it felt very slick, with little work to be done. It is quaint, old-fashioned and eccentric but none of these are a bad thing as coupled with the wit, charm and heart of the tunes and performances everything comes together to create a truly excellent new British musical. It is refreshing to see an original show in the West End and I truly wish it every success. Go see!
N.B. Thanks to a helpful lady in the Box Office, I saw this show from a Box, for the first time in my life. It is at the side, so you cannot see the full effect of the staging from the front and you do occasionally get a glimpse backstage of what is about to happen, however if like me you enjoy being close enough to the stage to see expressions and feel involved, at only £25 a seat (during previews at least) I would recommend the boxes. We did get a surprise in Act 2 though!Betty Blue Eyes is at the Novello Theatre, London and is booking until 22nd October 2011. Check out http://www.bettyblueeyesthemusical.com/ for more information.