Venue: Union Theatre. 229 Union Street, London SE1 0LX
Credits: Book by Ron Cowne and Daniel Lipman. Music & lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Directed by Sasha Regan. Co-produced by The Union Theatre and Sea Productions
Betty Blue Eyes
A musical about chiropody and pigs sounds unlikely but sometimes it’s the wackiest things which work best. Based on a 1994 film by Alan Bennett (Maggie Smith and Michael Palin) and then developed as a successful musical by Cameron Mackintosh in 2011 (Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith), Betty Blue Eyes now sits remarkably well in the bijoux Union Theatre. Somehow it accommodates a talented ensemble cast of nineteen and a three piece band without ever feeling cramped.
We’re in 1947 ( a rather good year for your reviewer but I won’t labour that) when rationing and austerity dominated everyone’s thinking. However, the imminent wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten might just cheer everyone up and provide an excuse to party, at least for some. It’s a Yorkshire village with a strong sense of community. That inimitable Bennett-ian Yorkshire insouciance has survived into this production.
Sam Kipling (strong actor), familiar from Sasha Regan’s Gilbert and Sullivan shows, is a peripatetic chiropodist desperately wanting his own premises. There’s a very funny number “Magic Fingers” in which chiropody becomes erotic when he services the feet of four women. Bespectacled, nervous and daunted he can’t cope with the double entendres especially when he gets to the butcher’s sexy wife Mrs Allardyce (Laurel Dougall).
It can’t be easy to follow Maggie Smith and Sarah Lancashire but Amelia Atherton has a commendable crack at making the role of Joyce Chilvers entirely her own. Her character is an aspirant social riser and even just a tilt of her head or rippling of her fingers tells a whole story as she tries, in a faintly Lady Macbeth-ian way to stir Gilbert to action, teach piano or manage her difficult mother (Jayne Ashley, good). She sings beautifully – wistful passion – and inhabits her character entirely. Atherton is only three years out of drama school. I hope we’ll see a lot more of her very soon.
Meanwhile the whole community is hungry – both for food and normal life. David Pendlebury has fun playing Inspector Wormold, the man from the Ministry of Food who suspects (rightly) that illegal pig farming is going on, as an over-the-top Miss Trunchbull type. And the ghastly local council members led by Stuart Simons as Dr Swaby are good value because they are, of course, cheating for their own benefit. It works particularly well in 2023 because the idea of petti-fogging rules dominating everyday life and being enforced by bossy jobsworths feels very topical. So does the concept of the people who make and enforce the rules, breaking them when it suits them.
The blue-eyed pig puppet is sentimentally appealing and, of course, having been vegetarian for 45 years, I’m as pleased as anyone else when nobody manages to kill it for roast pork and bacon. There’s a lot of feel-good stuff in this up-beat show. Members of the press were each given a bag of fudge (referred to longingly in the show because everything was still tightly rationed in 1947) presumably in the hope that the sugar rush would put us all in a good mood. It worked for me and I’m really glad they didn’t give us pork scratchings.
Stiles and Drewe can always be relied upon to come up with good tunes and ear worms and this show is no exception. The out of sight band, led by MD Aaron Clingham on piano does an excellent job with the score which nips cheerfully along. Work by Becky Hughes on winds (flute, clarinet, alto & baritone sax) is especially memorable.