‘Betty Blue Eyes’
Produced by Cameron Mackintosh
Directed by Richard Eyre
Book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman
Music by George Stiles
Lyrics by Anthony Drewe
Novello Theatre, London, from March 2011
“Betty Blue Eyes” is the type of show the British might refer to as “a good wheeze.” Based on the minor cult classic film “A Private Function” (1984) co-written by Alan Bennett and director Malcolm Mobray, it is gentle but pointed, sober but silly, and squeaky clean but with a kinky undercurrent. Converted to a West End musical at the behest of Cameron Mackintosh with music by George Stiles, lyrics by Anthony Drewe and a book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, it aims not for the bombast of a new blockbuster, but rather for the cheeky charms of classic British music hall. It dares you to dislike it, throwing everything into its carefully manufactured impression of smallness from dancing Bobbies to an animatronic pig voiced by Kylie Minogue (it has one line: sung at the end, so don’t be impatient waiting for it).
The story takes place in post-World War II Britain in a paradoxical moment of austerity and celebration. As ordinary Yorkshire folk cue at the butcher’s with their all-important ration coupons, the town leaders plan a secret, exclusive feast to mark the marriage of Princess Elizabeth, soon to be Queen Elizabeth II. Not invited to the occasion are mild-mannered chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers and his socially ambitious wife, Joyce. Gilbert’s very existence is an offense in the eyes of Town Council leader Dr. James Swaby, whose provocations include blocking Gilbert from having a surgery on the town’s main street. Eventually, Gilbert snaps in the face of this kind of repression, and having learned of the existence of the pig the Town Council has been illegally keeping to serve at the feast, he steals it and keeps it in his home, with typically chaotic results.
Though the broad echoes of the now are there (economic deprivation, social inequality, a royal wedding), this show, like the film before it, harks back to a previous age with no small measure of nostalgia. Even the screwball comedy feels like homage, though the script is not entirely without satire and irony. There are some marvelxously grotesque elements to it, including the recurring motif of butchery and slaughter (in one scene misunderstood as applying to a human), and a standout musical number revealing the secret passions of Inspector Wormold, whose day job is to clamp down on illegal meat trading.
Mobray and Bennett both included quasi-autobiographical elements in their original tale, which otherwise has the feel of something that emerged fully formed from the social imagination of Britain’s past. On this level, the show may seem contrived or constructed entirely from clichés, but actually there are referents to the real in there that give the action a frisson of truth. In essence though, this is a show that invites audiences to enjoy themselves, and the jaunty score and witty lyrics only occasionally invite you to probe a little more deeply.
The originating cast includes TV stars Sarah Lancashire (Joyce) and Reece Shearsmith (Gilbert), both capably holding their place in the leads. Lancashire doesn’t quite escape the sense that she is doing a version of what Maggie Smith did in the film, even if she’s quite good at it, but Shearsmith makes Gilbert entirely his own. His reactions during the hummable title song (sung by animal-loving town counselor Henry Allardyce [Jack Edwards] about the pig, for whom he has developed some affection) are charmingly uncondescending. He first registers confusion and disbelief, conveyed to the audience via sidelong glances as a grown man sings about his beautiful pig, but then joins in and brings us with him, celebrating the fun of it all above any unsavory or unduly ridiculous connotations that the whole thing might have. Sing along and you, too, are singing about a charming pig, after all.
Of the other cast Adrian Scarborough gets to steal the show most completely in the marvelous “Painting by Heart,” and throughout manages to attain the balance of menace and comical force necessary to make the character work at all. David Bamber is a venomous Dr. Swaby and Ann Emery a cheerfully mercenary Mother Dear, and the entire backing cast performing multiple roles bring due energy and happy smiles to everything they do.
There is no question that this show demands a certain level of indulgence, and it doesn’t really command it by dint of its inherent structures or musical pleasures. But it is well executed, well performed, and definitely well intentioned to provide entertainment of a kind not unfairly expected on a visit to the West End. Whether it would carry across to Broadway is another question entirely.