After years of American imports and jukebox musicals, at long last the British musical is fighting back with a show about austerity Britain and a forthcoming Royal Wedding.
Belts are being tightened, spending reviewed and parties being thrown to celebrate the royal nuptials. This isn’t 2011, though, but 1947 and Betty Blue Eyes, a musical adaptation of Alan Bennett’s quintessential British film A Private Function.
Although the war is over, life is still hard and rationing continues. In the daily queue for what little meat is on sale, bitter rivalries and class prejudices come to the fore.
Joyce Chilvers is desperate to climb the social ladder but, while she may have ambitions, the Town Council and their influential wives don’t see the wife of a struggling chiropodist as one of ‘their kind’. Husband Gilbert is trying his best to please his wife’s aspirations but never quite hits the mark.
When Joyce overhears the Town Council is planning a ‘private function’ for the town’s social elite to celebrate the forthcoming royal wedding, she’s determined to be invited but, when snubbed, she plots her revenge by kidnapping their illegally held pig – the eponymous Betty – who is being fattened up to bolster the flagging rations.
Que one manic tale of pignapping, Government meat inspectors, and even a dream sequence featuring a guest appearance from their Royal Highnesses Elizabeth and Phillip.
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s music and lyrics are full of whimsical charm, mixing comic numbers, ballads and even a Busby Berkeley tribute into an evocative score. It echoes Bennett’s original piece perfectly with a clever script that moves with tongue firmly in cheek but always true to character.
Central to the piece are two strong performances from Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith as Joyce and Gilbert Chilvers. Lancashire seems a natural stage musical leading lady, totally commanding the stage and blessed with a strong vocal presence and deadpan comic timing. Her rendition of Nobody, a fantasy sequence transforming the housewife into glittering star perhaps the highlight of the evening.
While Shearsmith may not quite match the singing abilities of Lancashire, his performance as the other half of this crazy couple is poignantly touching.
There are also strong performances from Ann Emery as a wonderfully dotty Mother and Adrian Scarborough as the Gestapo-like German measles-suffering meat inspector Woemwold.
Of course then there is the true star of the show, Betty herself. Her blue eyes do indeed dazzle and win the hearts of all in the audience. Its no surprise that Betty gets perhaps the biggest reception at the curtain call but she does hold back a secret until the very end.
Tim Hatley’s designs provide an effective backdrop to this madcap world while Stephen Mear’s choreography supplies the necessary glamour without ever overpowering the drama. Richard Eyre sensibly allows the comedy to shine through without over-emphasis and makes this a surprisingly poignant show.
Among the laughs there are moments of sheer emotion that counteract the farcical.
There may have been a raft of film to musical adaptations over the years but Betty Blue Eyes is one of those rare things, it not only honours the original but stands alone as a work of art on its own merits.
This is one sow that will have you squealing with delight.
This review of a preview performance on Saturday 9th April. The show officially opens on April 13th.