Animatronics, a Yorkshire chiropodist, paintbrush-wielding meat inspector and the great British roast bizarrely yet seamlessly combine to make what is sure to be another massive smash for Cameron Mackintosh.
To end a week that may make me appear as a League of Gentlemen obsessive, I caught Reece Shearsmith and Sarah Lancashire in the first Friday performance of Betty Blue Eyes at the beautiful Novello theatre. Having only been offered tickets the night before, I went in without many expectations, yet came out with the warm glow that comes with a great theatrical surprise. It is unusual and refreshing to be able to go to a show which is completely unfamiliar, but this production will undoubtedly become an ‘old favourite’ for thousands of theatregoers in the not-too-distant future.
The timing of this production has been uncannily fortunate. It is set in 1947 ‘austerity’ Britain at the time of the wedding of the then Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip. At this time there were ration cuts after a long harsh winter… the list of similarities to today is obvious. The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ vintage signs that have become retro design staples of late are also channelled, bringing the style bang on trend at the same time. It is also interesting to note the scene where the cast hold placards to protest against cuts to meat rations – the arts are currently held in a strange limbo as the axe of coalition cuts is almost certainly due to fall next week across many small regional theatres. These currently bring opportunities that may soon be missed by an entire generation as a result of budgetary cutbacks. See the great David Shrigley arts cuts video for more information and some inspiration.
Adapted from the 1984 Alan Bennett scripted film A Private Function, Betty Blue Eyes follows the story of an under-achieving chiropodist, who steals a pig destined for a Royal Wedding Banquet in his heavily rationed and classically class-ridden Yorkshire village. Shearsmith takes the role of Gilbert played by Michael Palin in the film, and Lancashire is wonderful as his wife Joyce (originally Maggie Smith). Palin and Smith’s influence stay deservedly stamped on the characters, but the fit of the music by George Stiles & Antony Drewe is so natural that it would be easy to assume that the story had always been a musical.
The role of Joyce is noticeable as a great addition to a very small pool of strong female leads for the over 40s. Lancashire delivers unreservedly, gliding between on stage costume changes, big glamorous numbers and being one half of an extremely loveable and convincing couple.
Yet however the actors may try, they will never raise as much admiration as that animatronic pig. Apparently there are four of the robots in case of technical failure, and they are the most expensive ‘lead actor’ ever employed by Mackintosh. The first sight of the pig is eagerly anticipated, and I found myself feeling genuine angst that it wouldn’t return for a bow after the final curtain… Whether this affection for a remote controlled farm animal is a sign of the quality of the production or my own oddities remains to be seen, but they have got the pig just right – its fur looks enticingly soft even from the depths of the dress circle. Combined with the flirtatious blue eyes of the title (and apparently voiced by Kylie, but don’t quote me on it…), she is an irresistible example of animals ‘hogging’ the limelight (apologies for that – irresistible pun.)
The music and lyrics are catchy and amusing, with Lancashire’s Nobody undoubtedly the showstopper of the night. Shearsmith is much weaker vocally but provides a loveable and funny Gilbert, supported by an extremely strong company in both acting and choreography. Adrian Scarborough plays the bizarre character of the (Meat) Inspector – constantly appearing at butchers only to shut them down and mark their meat unfit for consumption with his menacing green paint, and relishing every moment of it. In his Gestapo-style leather jacket he makes a great clumsy villain. Jack Edwards looks suitably porcine and almost inconceivably manages to make a character more in love with a pig than his wife sympathetic (and that coming from a card-carrying feminist).
The show continues to preview, and without doubt needs a few tweaks before official opening – the first half hour dragged slightly before the comedy hit its sharpest during the There’s a Pig in the House, which brought the house down. Mainly though, we need to see more of that pig! However, there is huge potential in this production – it will appeal to audiences young and old, local and foreign. Peppered with porcine puns, it retains Bennett’s inimitable voice and is so typically British one can’t help but think that this could succeed on Broadway in the same way that Billy Elliot has taken it by storm.
Hold onto your haunches – I think we have another Cats on our hands. Congratulations Cameron!