Review by Daz Gale
After winning over audiences with its West End run in 2011, there’s not been a sausage or a sniff for Betty Blue Eyes in London for 12 years. With British audiences starving for another bite of this feelgood show, a rather unexpected new production has emerged in the intimate Union Theatre. But would this revival be able to bring home the bacon?
Based on the 1984 movie ‘A Private Function’, Betty Blue Eyes is set in 1947 and tells the story of a local community dealing with food rationing while planning to come together to celebrate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Amongst the ways they try to smuggle extra food without being caught by the local food inspector is by illegally raising a pig… which then gets stolen by the local chiropodist and his wife… obviously.
A story as out there as this could easily descend into farcical quality. However, it never quite gets to that level of absurdity – instead, playing the story with a quiet sensitivity feeling discernibly human and, dare I say, rational? This is achieved thanks to Ron Cowne and Daniel Lipman’s beautiful book which lets himself be a slow burn as we are introduced to the many characters in the community. In fact, we are not introduced to the titular Betty until quite a way into act one. While the action gets a bit more manic and silly in the second act, the pigs appearances remain relatively fleeting, allowing the humanity in the story play out to its full potential in a refreshing mix of heart-warming and witty writing
The less than 100 seated Union Theatre in Southwark may not have been the obvious choice for a show whose West End home was the Novello Theatre, particularly when the show in question features a cast of 19… and a pig. The choice to stage it here is bold and admirable, as unexpected as it is. Ambitious in scale, the glorious set design from Reuben Speed makes full use of the limited and relatively unconventional space, while Sasha Regans direction expertly navigates the limitations to ensure every element of the story and staging is maximised to its full potential.
Unfortunately a couple of the production elements didn’t quite work as hoped on the night. While there were some great choices with Alistair Lindsay’s lighting design, the cues were repeatedly missed leaving cast members bathed in darkness. Similarly, the choice to perform the piece without microphones may work for smaller shows but with a cast that large, some of the lead actors voices were lost in the performance. Sat in the front row, I struggled to hear at times myself so can only imagine how that translated a few rows back. These issues were few and far between and I’m sure can be fixed as the run continues.
The cast of nineteen are overall sensational, channelling the fine line between human sensitivity and comedy with a series of larger than life characters. The performance choices in this respect are joyous to watch. Amelia Atherton gives a beautifully nuanced portrayal as Joyce Chilvers, constantly balancing between being grateful for what she has and always wanting more. Her husband Gilbert Chilvers, played by Sam Kipling, is a consistent delight with his sweet natured, mild-mannered nature giving way to rare explosive moments as the show develops, performed to perfection by Sam. Together, they display a great chemistry and authenticity as a married couple, truly going the whole hog.
Jayne Ashley is a scene-stealing marvel as Mother Dear with her tongue-twisting turn in musical number ‘Pig, No Pig’ a highlight. David Pendlebury is the right balance of menacing and panto villain as Inspector Wormold with George Dawes a standout as Mr Noble/Sutcliffe. The remaining cast members are equally outstanding with no weak link among them. In a comparatively large cast, they each get a turn to showcase their breath-taking talent and come together flawlessly. Particularly with the larger group numbers, where they bring Kasper Cornish’s fantastic choreography to life effortlessly. As for the pig, while no pop superstars may be voicing her this time (Kylie Minogue provided the voice in the West End), she still manages to melt audiences even with her ragged appearance – though you may find yourself craving a bit of bacon when you leave the theatre.
The music and lyrics by Stiles & Drewe are of the excellent standard we have come to expect from them. Though this wasn’t a score I was previously familiar with, the songs felt instantly memorable and didn’t fail to raise a smile on my face. Musical highlights include the sensitive early I Want number ‘A Place On The Parade’, Amelia Atherton’s stunning ‘Nobody’ and Sam Kipling’s roof-raising act two solo ‘The Kind Of Man I Am’. Larger musical numbers always raise a smile with ‘Since The War’ and ‘Steal The Pig’ two particular standouts.
Thankfully, this revival of Betty Blue Eyes hasn’t made a pigs ear out of a show that is loved by many, despite its short time on the stage last time. While it may feel too big for the small space it is in, it does an impressive job of cramming everything in so it doesn’t lose any sense of grandeur and is a great testament to why smaller spaces such as The Union Theatre are so vital and integral to the industry and should never be disregarded or overlooked. A truly spectacular cast and clever direction brings new life to a show that already boasted wonderful writing and marvellous songs. Guaranteed to make you snort with laughter, this utterly charming production is never boar-ing.
Betty Blue Eyes plays at The Union Theatre until 22nd April. Tickets from http://uniontheatre.biz/
Photos by Michaela Walshe