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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
BETTY BLUE EYES
at the Novello

MAKE 'EM LIKE THEY USED TO
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Sarah Lancashire/ Ph: Michael Le Poer Trench

Betty Blue Eyes turns the clock back 64 years for its period setting and about 45 years in its approach to musical comedy. The evening kicks off with a good old-fashioned overture, there’s even an entr’acte after the interval, and the orchestra is ensconced in the pit where it belongs.
 
For the many among us who complain that musicals ain’t what they used to be, Betty Blue Eyes, though far from perfect, will, temporarily at any rate, restore faith in a genre that has undergone seismic changes since Hair altered its parameters in the early 60s.
 
A throwback to British musicals such as Half a Sixpence and Lionel Bart’s Blitz, this stage adaptation of Alan Bennett and Malcolm Mowbrays’ 1984 film A Private Function benefits immeasurably from its fortuitous timing. Though it all takes place in a small Yorkshire village just after the end of World War II, there are sufficient parallels with what’s happening in Britain today to give it a contemporary boost.
 
Like the here and now, it’s a time of austerity and cutbacks. Things are really tough, and rationing is the first item on almost everyone’s agenda. Also imminent is a royal wedding between Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten. Need I say more?
 
The plot devised by Bennett and Mowbray and adapted for the stage by Ron Cowan and Daniel Lipman involves the illicit rearing of a pig called Betty whose fate is to be slaughtered then served up at a local banquet to which only the town’s dignitaries have been invited.
 
Not on the guest list is Gilbert Chivers, a meek-mannered chiropodist (Reece Shearsmith) who, after being refused a license to open a practice in the high-street, steals Betty and attempts, with farcical consequences, to hide her in the house he shares with his status-seeking wife (Sarah Lancashire) and her 84-year-old mother (Ann Emery).
 
The villain of the piece is a meat inspector called Wormold (Adrian Scarborough), a lower-case Hitler who, after appropriating all the illicit pork he can find, daubs paint on the carcasses, signing off as Pigasso.
 
Just as there is no part of a pig that cannot be eaten, the creators of Betty Blue Eyes make sure that nothing in Messrs Bennett and Mowbray’s rather eccentric story goes unmusicalized. Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe haven’t missed an opportunity to shoehorn a song for every occasion into the narrative. Some, like “Magic Fingers” – a paean to the chiropodist Gilbert’s abilities sung by three of his female patients and the title number, which is a love sung to a pig (surely a first in musical comedy) – are pretty good.
 
Also quite catchy is “Nobody,” about a nobody aspiring to be a somebody. The number boasts a gasp-making quick change as it moves from reality to fantasy and is energetically performed by Ms Shearsmith, who doesn’t always disguise the fact that the role was originally played by Maggie Smith in the film.
 
Much of the score, though, while benefitting from Drewe’s often witty and well-turned lyrics, is generic and reminiscent. Scarborough is suitably hissible as the seriously unpleasanrt meat inspector, but his song “Painting by Heart” needs a better singing voice than is here provided; and David Bamber as an equally unpleasant local anti-Semite is far too good an actor for this sort of throwaway gig.
 
For me, though, the problem is that there is

 


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