Music &Lyrics: George Stiles and Antony Drewe
Writers: Ron Cowen &Daniel Lipman
Director: Daniel Buckroyd
Musical Director: Richard Reeday
Choreographer: Andrew Wright
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Like a good wine, many stage musicals improve with age. The pressures of ensuring all the pieces are in place for that initial first night don’t allow for the reflection needed to tweak and refine any rough edges. Countless musicals have been tinkered with post opening – from minor re-writes to major surgery.
For Betty Blue Eyes the journey has also been one of revision and review. The originally blockbuster staging of the short-lived West End Production refined and re-envisioned for a smaller stage by the Colchester Mercury. After completing its run in Colchester the show now embarks on the first leg of an extensive UK tour and now on the smaller New Wolsey stage the show seems much more at home.
The tales of post war austerity Britain still resonates today, it’s make do and mend mentality reflecting current financial curbs. There’s more to the piece than a historical retrospective however. Adapted from Alan Bennett’s A Private Function, the piece was always going to be cleverly crafted but George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s witty music and lyrics take a wry look at everything from class prejudice to government corruption – all with a hefty dose of wit and humour.
In the few weeks since its opening in Colchester the show has settled in remarkably. Timing is tighter, characters have developed and those first night nerves have transformed into a company clearly relishing the fun in the piece.
Haydn Oakley, with his uncannily accurate look of a young Bennett and Amy Booth-Steel lead the company as Gilbert and Joyce Chilvers, a chiropodist with aspirations – well more accurately a chiropodist’s wife with aspirations. There’s real chemistry between the two, and great comic timing that works even better in closer quarters. Inflections and details are perfectly captured and, as belies their West End pedigree, both sing up a storm.
In a universally strong company (the harmonies in the ensemble numbers the best this score has ever sounded) there’s a comic masterclass from Sally Mears as Mother Dear, the 74-year-old matriarch who is desperate for real food after so many years of post-war rationing.
What is more apparent in this more intimate staging is the pathos and pain that also features alongside the comedy. There’s a sense of loneliness and isolation that still prevails over the community, even after the horrors of war have ceased, a pain that somewhat shapes and colours the madcap mayhem that ensues.
Daniel Buckroyd’s spot-on direction balances this pathos and wit perfectly, weaving the emotional thread through the entire piece, knowing just when to unleash complete comic abandon (a riotous rendition of Another Little Victory For Little England, complete with synchronised tea cups and the Duke of Edinburgh being used as a maypole) and when to become more reflective (the beautiful and poignant Magic Fingers trio).
And then we come to the porcine star herself, Miss Blue Eyes. Ably handled by landgirl Lauren Logan, in closer proximity it’s easy to become surprisingly emotionally attached to a pig. The flutter of her azure eyes, the flick of a tail and a wiggle enough to have the audience eating out of her hand/trotters.
It’s a rare opportunity to catch a production at two different venues in the space of just a few weeks but it does provide a glimpse into how theatre is an ever evolving process. A second viewing confirms the pedigree of the show and the reclaiming of the musical to its rightful place as a modern classic. In Colchester it may have been sublime but with time to bed in and mature it’s moved from the sublime to musical theatre perfection.
Runs in Ipswich until April 19 and then continues to tour the UK