Wills and Kate are unlikely to generate the same levels of unbounded, country-wide enthusiasm for their nuptials next weekend as the future queen Elizabeth and her prince Philip enjoyed just after World War II, but the fact we live in a much less deferential age can’t dim this delightful new Cameron Macintosh musical about a nation gearing up for a royal wedding.
It’s 1947 and England is in the grip of belt-tightening austerity measures, with queuing patiently for fresh produce and finding 22 different ways of cooking Spam all considered part of one’s patriotic duty. Yet the need to celebrate the royal extravaganza with something other than tinned ham has led to a feverish black market in meat, except that Betty, the flatulent pig being illegally reared for slaughter, has a pair of eyes as blue as any matinee starlet, and stills the hand of every man who tries to slay her.
Based on the Alan Bennett-scripted film A Private Function, this is firmly in the classic English comic tradition of light-handed class satire, in which those desperate to “belong” are invariably shown as priggish as those at the top keeping the underlings at bay. Richard Eyre’s impeccably timed production is steeped in an almost tactile period feel for a parochial English village, where blitz spirit sits cheek by sow with social bigotry and where the biggest social triumph is getting shop space on the Parade. Yet, powered by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s ebullient music and lyrics and Stephen Mear’s top notch choreography, at heart this is also a knowing crowd pleaser that makes a virtue of its buoyant good cheer, a joyfully populist piece of musical escapism perfectly calibrated for today’s dour, straitened times with oodles of wit and flair.
It’s also gloriously silly. Reece Shearsmith finds the pathos in his defiantly simple but quietly sensitive chiropodist Gilbert with – as the lonely village widows dreamily sing – “magic fingers,” and married to Sarah Lancashire’s battle-axe social climber Joyce, who combines a hearty make-do attitude (and a blood-thirsty determination) with more poignant flashes of dashed dreams.
Adrian Scarborough is fantastic as Inspector Wormwold, the leather-clad meat inspector who enjoys laying his hands on illegal meat with a lip-smacking, almost-League of Gentleman style relish, and in one of the show’s more surreal moments, sings of his fantasy of slapping green paint on every illegal pig in the land with a chorus of paintbrush-waving dancing policemen.
What should be in the star of the show and isn’t, quite, is the animatronic Betty, who simpers and flutters her eyelids like a coquettish Kylie Minogue (who lends Betty her voice at the finale), yet is never the coup de theatre as, say, the puppets of War Horse. Still, there’s great support from Ann Emery as Mother Dear, Joyce’s viperish, kleptomaniac 84-year-old mother, who in a terrific set piece becomes convinced Joyce and Gilbert want to kill her instead of the pig. And in one of the show’s best sequences, Mear displays his stiletto-sharp skills as a choreographer with a sprit-soaring display of jiving couples in the minutes before a bomb explodes. Like the show itself, it’s full of rousing life, and a sliver of darkness.