‘We’re all in it together’ is one of those phrases politicians bandy around when there is bad news. Unfortunately, experience has shown that while we may all be in it together, some of us are in it a lot more than others. Somehow those in charge manage to bypass the restrictions they thrust on others. Alas it was ever so a fact that is brought home to us with the opening of Betty Blue Eyes at the Union theatre.
1947 and in a small town in Northern England, everyone is gathering around the wireless to hear the BBC announce the details of the royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip. At the same time, the government also announces a reduction in the pork ration. The war may be over but rationing is still alive and well and the local townspeople are suffering for it. However, not all of them are suffering as much and three of the local dignitaries, Dr James Swaby (Stuart Simons), local accountant Henry Allardyce (Josh Perry) and solicitor Francis Lockwood (Tom Holt) – who between them pretty much make up the local council – are planning a very special and very private dinner to celebrate the event. The menu is also very special with roast pork being the main attraction. The pork in question is an illicit pig currently being fattened up at the farm of Sutcliffe (George Dawes). As the day gets closer, the sneaky triumvirate not only have to keep their plans secret from Inspector Wormold (David Pendlebury) a government meat checker but also from the newly arrived chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers (Sam Kipling), his social-climbing wife Joyce (Amelia Atherton) and Mother Dear (Jayne Ashley) Gilbert‘s slightly eccentric mother-in-law. All Gilbert wants to do is open his own surgery on the Parade but with secrets and lies everywhere, a wife who wants more than he can give, not to mention a government inspector locking up butchers and a pig in the mix, will he ever get to realise his dream?
Based on Alan Bennett’s 1984 film A Private Function, adapted for the stage by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman with music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe. Betty Blue Eyes is the first in-house production at the Union Theatre since Covid and I have to say it was a lot of fun.
Whilst the stage is small, the cast is large – nineteen in total – with the majority decked out in appropriate post second world war costumes. The only exception for me was the policeman whose uniform was distinctly iffy, particularly as at one point he is referred to as Sergeant although he has no stripes. Sasha Regan, double-level set makes great use of the stage space, including hiding the three-piece band behind the scenery. There were a few issues and anomalies with Alistair Lindsay’s lighting. At times there were way too many shadows hiding faces, and the LED strip down the side of the set looked rather incongruous for 1947.
However, technical issues aside, Betty Blue Eyes is a really great show with quite an intense story covering snobbery, social climbing, love, elitism and abuse of power, coupled with around twenty songs. My favourite was Magic Fingers, which is so gentle but says so much. My second favourite was Pig, No Pig, where Director Sasha Regan, along with Choreographer Kasper Cornish, brings a wonderfully farcical element to the story that is highly entertaining.
Sam Kipling and Amelia Atherton are just great as Gilbert and Joyce with both of them really inhabiting their characters. Kipling exposes Gilbert’s diffidence and wistfulness that make him both vulnerable and loveable. But, don’t be fooled as, when combined with Atherton’s Joyce, Gilbert reveals a backbone of steel. Joyce herself is a fascinating character. All her need to be accepted, to be somebody instead of nobody, seems to be the result of being pushed by her mother. She is dissatisfied with everything in her life. From her job, teaching piano, her social position, her husband, everything is wrong and Atherton brings that out beautifully. Both the leads have individual songs that they deliver well but it is when they are together that the magic really happens. Atherton in particular has a wonderfully expressive face that with one look is worth a dozen pages of dialogue. Due to where I was sitting, there was a time near the end when the two, along with Ashley’s Mother Dear, were sat very close to me, and it was lovely watching the three together, totally in character with little asides and movements that were just right for the characters. Of course the real star of the show is the pig Betty and what a delight she is. A wonderful patchwork puppet, deftly controlled by Georgia Bootham, who is so endearing, its impossible not to fall in love with her. I was lucky being in the front row as I could see Betty close up. Unfortunately, those further back couldn’t see her at all for a lot of her performance which was a shame.
Betty Blue Eyes is an odd show. There are many connections with our lives today, austerity, belt-tightening, no food in the shops and a feeling that those at the top really are not suffering the same as the rest of us. But it’s also one that is disconnected from the modern world, particularly the storyline of a little England obsessed with class and social position. Ultimately, although it is not without its faults, I really enjoyed the production. It’s very silly but fun and I can’t help wondering what will happen to Betty when the show finishes. If she’s looking for a home, give me a call.
Review by Terry Eastham
It is 1947, war has ended but Britain’s long-suffering 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. Enter Betty, an adorable pig who is being illegally reared to ensure local dignitaries of a small community in Yorkshire can celebrate the Royal Wedding with a lavish banquet whilst the local population make do with Spam.
‘Betty Blue Eyes’ is an utterly British musical, full of eccentric characters, such as odd couple Gilbert Chilvers – an humble chiropodist, and his wife Joyce, a nobody determined to be somebody; Inspector Wormold – an obsessive destroyer of illegal meat; Mother Dear – “She’s 74 and ravenous”; along with a weird assortment of bullies, spivs and snobs, and of course, Betty the pig.
‘Betty Blue Eyes’, directed by Sasha Regan, is the first in-house production at The Union Theatre since Covid.
BETTY BLUE EYES
BOOK BY Ron Cowen & Daniel Lipman
MUSIC BY George Stiles
LYRICS BY Anthony Drewe
Based on the Handmade film ‘A Private Function’ and the original story by Alan Bennett and Malcom Mowbray.
Adapted from the screenplay by Alan Bennett
Sam Kipling (Gilbert Chilvers)
Amelia Atherton (Joyce Chilvers)
Jayne Ashley (Mother Dear)
David Pendlebury (Inspector Wormold)
Stuart Simons (Dr Swaby)
Josh Perry (Henry Allardyce)
Tom Holt (Francis Lockwood)
Emma Jane Fearnley (Mrs Roach / Ensemble)
Jade Marvin (Mrs Lester / Ensemble)
Katie Stasi (Mrs Turnbull / Ensemble)
The rest of the cast are: Laurel Dougall, Aimée McQueen, Shannon Farrell, Hannah Lawton, Kane Stone, Jonny Weston, Georgia Boothman, George Dawes
Veronica Allardyce will be played by members of the Union Youth Theatre; Nellie Regan, Ava Jennings-Grant and Coco Bennett
Director Sasha Regan
Choreographer Kasper Cornish
Musical Director Aaron Clingham
Designer Reuben Speed
Casting Director Adam Braham
Originally produced by Cameron Mackintosh
Presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International
29 March 2023 – 22 April 2023