A musical set in a Britain of austerity, nearly bankrupted after an expensive war waged on multiple fronts, with the public’s only glimmer of hope built upon a forthcoming royal wedding? Betty Blue Eyes has surely found the perfect time in which to open (it is currently in previews, with press night on April 13).
In reality, the musical has been in gestation for quite some time now. When I interviewed George Stiles and Anthony Drewe for The Stage Podcast several months ago, their music for this adaptation of Alan Bennett’s film A Private Function was already eagerly awaited, and the number Magic Fingers had been showcased in the one-off concert A Spoonful of Stiles & Drewe in July 2008.
The fates have conspired to make the show’s concepts seem particularly appropriate now, with its message of how the proletariat should be wary of the upper classes bending the law to their own ends. Mind you, I’m sure that even if Britain were in an age of enduring prosperity, we would be able to find a parable in the tale of the little man struggling to find his place amongst the oppressors without losing his soul in the process…
While still in its first week of previews, Betty Blue Eyes feels much closer to a finished show than, say, The Wizard of Oz did at the same stage. In that show, it felt like the audience was watching a rehearsal – here, we were watching something whole and complete, which maybe needs a little bit of tweaking here and there but won’t particularly change between now and press night. That doesn’t mean it has no flaws, but those it does have in my view prevent a four-star review becoming a five-star one.
Reece Shearsmith plays Gilbert, a humble, peripatetic chiropodist whose ambitions go no further than his dream of renting a clinic on ‘the parade’, the shopping area of his Northern England town. His wife Joyce (Sarah Lancashire), who once harboured dreams of being a professional performer, yearns to be accepted amongst the town’s social elite. When the couple stumble upon the town council’s plans to stage a private banquet to celebrate the Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten, and that said banquet’s main course involves a pig being illegally reared in contravention of the country’s strict rationing laws, they see a way to cocking a snook at those who would exclude them.
It is only when the couple act on their plans to first abduct, then kill, the pig – the eponymous Betty Blue Eyes – that the book of this musical really gets going. Unfortunately, this main storyline doesn’t really kick in until the end of the first act. Up until that point, we have some frankly superb musical numbers – from the poignancy of Magic Fingers, as the women of the town recount their wartime experiences while Gilbert administers to their podiatry requirements, to Joyce’s glorious solo Nobody Calls Me Nobody, which we can safely assume will be the stand-out cabaret number taken from this show.
The rest of Act One ends up being mainly setup without the feeling of necessarily having anywhere direct to go. Adrian Scarborough’s turn as the inspector from the Ministry of Food ends up being too likeable to be as unctuous as the character needs, although the almost sexual bliss with which he paints sides of meat unfit for human consumption leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. His role does feel like it could be redeemed by someone who can be comically villainous, but possesses a singing voice with a strength that Scarborough sadly lacks.
Indeed, a certain weakness in the vocal area also hampers Reece Shearsmith’s Gilbert, such that he always seems to be playing second fiddle to whichever principal or ensemble cast member he happens to be singing with. As the man who is set up from the beginning as the everyman protagonist we’re supposed to root for, this does not bode well.
Thankfully, Sarah Lancashire – hitherto an actress not known for her singing and dancing ability – saves the first act with a succession of performances in solo and as part of an ensemble that carries the show on to the point where the story proper really starts to take flight. Make no mistake, this is Joyce’s story, and both Shearsmith and Ann Emery as Joyce’s 84-year-old mother work hard to make sure that Lancashire is able to show off her abilities in their best light.
Come Act 2, and the couple’s increasingly desperate attempts to conceal Betty in their terraced house form the basis of some wonderful farcical moments that make the whole show come alive. Unfortunately, Betty herself – a (reportedly very expensive) animatronic marvel, doesn’t quite possess the character of a live creature. True, it (she?) demonstrates great advancements in the world of electronic performance, but I couldn’t help feeling that a puppet-based pig would have provided more of the charisma that councilman Allardyce and Gilbert supposedly spot in her.
I know it probably sounds like I’m on a downer about Betty Blue Eyes, but I really did love it. It is a beautiful musical, very British in its form and redolent of the era in which it is set. The Charleston/Lindy Hop number in Act One is one of the better dance sequences I’ve seen on the West End stage in a long time, and both the songs and the book contain enough moments to allow oneself to get swept up in emotion. As one of the biggest new musicals in recent years, it acquits itself well and, fingers crossed, will get a long run.
However, one last quibble before I close. The poster of “Keep Calm and Carry On” has become something of a meme in the last couple of years, with plays on the theme cropping up all over the place – including on special T-shirts worn by the Novello front of house staff. It comes as no surprise that a projected version should form the basis of the pre-overture staging. But who in their right mind decided to forego the original’s classic font of Gill Sans in favour of the frankly awful (and anachronistic) Arial?