Rationing in Britain went on long after the hostilities of the Second World War had ended, pouring even more misery on an already worn-out population. Meat was in extremely short supply, and queuing for hours at a butcher's shop, only to find they ran out by the time you got to the head of the queue, was normal procedure in those austere times. And that's the period which this new musical by producer Cameron Mackintosh is all about.
It's back to 1947 and there's considerable similarity with the present day. The austerity of the times is matched by the fact that there's to be a royal wedding – Princess Elizabeth is marrying Prince Philip – and the local council want to hold a banquet in their honour. The only trouble is that there's not enough meat to make the feast suitably memorable. However, a local farmer has been persuaded to fatten-up an unlicensed pig to be killed specially for the occasion. The plan seems to be running smoothly, but the conspirators haven't figured on the lurking danger in the guise of a seemingly harmless chiropodist, Gilbert Chilvers (played by Reece Shearsmith). Well, it's not Gilbert who's the problem but his wife Joyce who's desperate to climb the social ladder and gain acceptance among the middle-class of the town. Pestered by his wife, and rejected for the tenancy of a surgery in a swanky shopping district, Gilbert is spurred into action and steals the banquet pig and lodges it in his house with rather foul-smelling consequences.
'Betty Blue Eyes' is based on the 1984 film 'A Private Function' written by Alan Bennett and Malcolm Mowbray. The music is by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe, and both have done a great job in producing numbers which work with the times and fit appropriately with the dialogue and plot. The melodies are effective and hummable, and one of them, Magic Fingers, has a haunting quality to it. But some of the songs and their accompanying routines are long, particularly the ones involving the meat inspector in the first half, and the scene in the chiropodist's home in the second.
Stealing the show is the animatronic pig, Betty. By the standards of modern stage wizardry, this is not exactly an all-singing, all-dancing kind of mechanical hog. Most of the time it simply sits in a bath or trailer fluttering it's eyes. But it also suffers from extreme flatulence, producing voluminous green clouds of foul-smelling odour.
Sarah Lancashire is a formidable Joyce, a woman whose desire to move up the social ladder is insatiable and definitely not to be denied. Ms Lancashire has a terrific singing voice which she uses to great effect in a number called 'Nobody', and she has a great song and dance number in which there's a neat trick where she does an almost instant costume change. As husband Gilbert, Reece Shearsmith, doesn't have such a powerful or impressive singing voice, but it's good enough to portray a timid, almost bashful man who is happy to simply be appreciated for the job he does, rather than seek the reward of social standing within the community.
Villain of the peace in this show is Wormold, the meat inspector from the Ministry of Food, played with military gusto by the ever-excellent Adrian Scarborough. Dressed in a Gestapo-style leather overcoat, Wormold symbolises authority in its darkest guise via the repression of the population through rationing. The other villain in the show is leader of the council, Dr James Swaby, excellently played by David Bamber who demonstrates an unhealthy loathing for competition, particularly in the form of the chiropodist.
I was left wondering just which target audience 'Betty Blue Eyes' is aimed at. It has a resemblance to the BBC hit TV series 'Dad's Army' which continues to be repeated ad nauseam, so I suppose it will most-likely appeal to an older, rather a younger crowd. From what I remember, the film seemed to me to have rather more wry wit, whereas here the comedy is less subtle and more overt. There are some very funny moments here – especially the scene where Joyce and Gilbert are talking about killing the pig and Joyce's mother thinks they are talking about killing her, but I nevertheless felt rather underwhelmed by it all, in spite of the infectiously tuneful songs. I think this is largely because several scenes and numbers are overly long. On the whole, then, it's fun, but not fantastic.
"Superbly endearing and entertaining show"
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"It's a production with heart and an unusual mix of gentleness and naughtiness."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standrad
"Musicals these days are constantly being based on movies. But this witty and delightful adaptation of the 1984 film A Private Function strikes me as better than the original."
Michael Billington for The Guardian