Betty Blue Eyes at The Union Theatre
Families finding it difficult to put a decent meal on the table, town councillors lining their own pockets and an imminent Royal Occasion could indicate Britain today, but this is in fact the post-war Britain of 1947 magically conjured to life in the production of Betty Blue Eyes at the Union Theatre.
The war has ended but Britain’s citizens are suffering under the burden of food rationing, high unemployment and the coldest winter for decades. The only bright spark on the horizon is the impending marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, which the local dignitaries of a small community in Yorkshire intend to celebrate with a lavish banquet whilst the local population make do with Spam.
Directed by Sasha Regan, this is the first in-house production at the Union Theatre since Covid. With audiences finally returning to theatres still struggling to recover, an upbeat, entertaining evening is just what is needed.
Based on the 1984 Handmade film A Private Function, which features a script by Alan Bennett and Malcolm Mowbray, Betty Blue Eyes, is a fast-paced musical comedy, with a witty, satirical book by Ron Cowne and Daniel Lipman underlining the theme of class snobbery, and with songs by Stiles and Drewe which genuinely enhance character and storyline.
A large cast and multiple locations in the very limited space of the Union demands some creative thinking, but the two-level, angled set serves the piece more than adequately and continuity is seamless. The period is conveyed through authentic-looking furniture, props, costumes and hair-styles, although Gilbert’s white socks, the farmer’s noisy shoes which should have been boots and the banqueting table were minor distractions. At such close proximity, the plastic food was disappointing, but maybe it’s a budget thing.
The three-piece band, led by MD Aaron Clingham, was tucked out of sight and provided a good balance for the singers whose diction was always clear, allowing us to appreciate the witty lyrics- often with ‘tongue-in-cheek’ rhymes- as well as excellent harmonies, particularly in the ladies’ number It’s an Ill Wind.
The actors portraying the leading characters of Joyce and Gilbert Chilvers are stepping into the shoes of some previous iconic pairings – Dame Maggie Smith and Michael Palin in the film, and Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith in the 2011 original West End production.
Amelia Atherton gives a strong central performance as the pragmatic Joyce Chilvers, full of steely determination to be a ‘somebody’ and to triumph over the pompous local dignitaries; delivering the dry wit of her lines with the right mannered blend of Yorkshire and faux ‘posh’ accent, as well as giving us a classy rendition of Nobody.
She is more than matched by Sam Kipling as her somewhat hapless henpecked husband, chiropodist Gilbert; eliciting our sympathy and support throughout, especially through the wonderful trio Magic Fingers, performed by Emma-Jane Fearnley, Jade Marvin and Katie Stasi, all in excellent voice, which juxtaposes comedy with the genuinely moving reality of the consequences of war. In Act Two his number The Kind of Man I Am was beautifully delivered, and reminded us that his quiet goodness is the true hero of the piece.
Jayne Ashley as Mother Dear is clearly a talented character actor, keeping the audience amused throughout, especially in the number Pig No Pig with all the production values of a farce. An older actor in the role though would have felt more authentic and added an extra dimension of sympathy from the audience.
David Pendlebury gives us a caricature of a villain in his portrayal of Inspector Wormold, intent on seeking out any illicit meat sales, and was in fine voice leading the number Upholding the Law.
And what of Betty Blue Eyes herself? The pig being illicitly reared by the Town Councillors as the centre piece of their banquet is no animatronic marvel here, but a very endearing patchwork fabric puppet in pink and blue, with her beautiful sparkling blue eyes. Although limited in movement, her character was perfectly conveyed through her puppeteer Georgia Boothman, and we all fell in love with her instantly, despite her tendency to pass wind!
Direction by Sasha Reagan was assured, nurturing new talent and creating a near-immersive experience for the audience, drawing us into the emotional moments. Choreography by Kasper Cornish was appropriate to the period and marvellously energetic and slick given the limited space and configuration of the set. The use of the sausages in Another Little Victory was genius and the jitterbug in the flashback scene was particularly enjoyable from the hard-working ensemble.
This production is a timely reminder of how the ingenuity needed to adapt a large-scale musical to fit the space and budget of fringe theatre can really bring the story and characters to life.
Review by Sheila Arden
Betty Blue Eyes is running at The Union Theatre until 22nd April. You can find out more on their website.