Review – Betty Blue Eyes

It’s 1947 and a somewhat self-effacing chiropodist and his social climbing wife connive to acquire an unlicensed pig from the local big-wigs in an attempt to secure themselves a place on the parade for Gilbert’s surgery and, importantly for his wife, an invitation to the social event of the year, a banquet celebrating the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

There’s something essentially British about this musical based on Alan Bennett’s film A Private Function (which provided early starring roles for Maggie Smith and Michael Palin). And that probably accounts, at least in part, for its sadly short run on its West End debut in 2011, despite outstanding reviews.

But the West End’s loss is amateur theatre’s gain as the show provides an ideal vehicle for Petts Wood Operatic Society with lots for the chorus to do and numerous meaty cameo roles. Much of Bennett’s script survives and consequently there are poignant moments and laughs to be had. The George Stiles score is packed with great tunes and deftly witty lyrics from Anthony Drewe. These are names familiar to anyone interested in musical theatre as Stiles and Drewe are responsible for the current version of Half a Sixpence, the stage version of Mary Poppins and the up-coming Wind in the Willows.

The piece asks a lot of its leading man and lady – they are in almost every scene – and in Hannah Ockenden-Rowe and Neil Stevens as Joyce and Gilbert the production was served royally. An early number, Magic Fingers, evidences both the trauma the locals have been through and Gilbert’s compassion. Simply staged with delightful close-harmony and touching performances this was a tear-jerking moment. At the other end of the dramatic spectrum there was the rousing joy of the big Act Two opener, Another Little Victory, and the farce of Pig, No Pig, caused by Gilbert and Joyce trying to hide the stolen pig in their house and explain the situation to Joyce’s mother.

The direction by Jamie Hemingway kept things moving with scenes flowing nicely from one to another. He encouraged broad performances from his cast, allowing them to stand out by setting them against a cleverly austere set built from recycled materials in true ‘make do and mend’ style.

This is one of the great British musicals of recent years and it’s a delight to see it on the stage once again.


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