Book: Ron Cowen &Daniel Lipman
Music: George Stiles
Lyrics: Anthony Drewe
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Austerity Britain. The country reeling from war. Nothing like a royal wedding to cheer up the populace. Not 2011 but 1947, and the princess bride none but Elizabeth Windsor, about to marry the dashing Philip Mountbatten. Despite rationing the burghers of Shepardsford have decided to celebrate the nuptials with a party, a chance to put their little northern town on the map, or as one of them boasts “this isn’t just a dinner, gentlemen, this is our moment!”. But what will grace the grand buffet?
Meanwhile on the other side of town, chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers (Reece Shearsmith) and his wife Joyce (Sarah Lancashire) are celebrating the opening of his new shop. He’s a popular man about town with his ‘magic fingers’, yet still failing to match up to his young wife’s dreams of a “lionheart who never came along”. When Chilvers hears about a pig that’s being illegally reared for the celebratory ‘private function’ and, encouraged by Joyce, turns pig rustler, he’s about to become the unlikely hero.
Think you’ve heard all this somewhere before? Of course, Betty Blue Eyes is a musical adaptation of the 1984 British film A Private Function, the one with Michael Palin and, well…a pig. The film embodies everything low budget, quirky British cinema is about. A story that’s hardly about anything at all, barely plausible, full of charm. And that’s where the problems with Betty Blue Eyes lie. The best musicals are about big things – politics, revolution, life, loss, love and death. The low-rent charm of A Private Function fails to translate into the musical genre, musicals just don’t work like that. From its big, brassy opening you know it’s going to be fun, but lack any kind of substance.
That doesn’t detract from the fact that there are some great songs, well delivered by the enthusiastic cast. There are fabulous dance numbers (Lionheart and Jitterbug use the band to full effect) which, not having actually seen the musical, conjure up a vivid, colourful imagined stage full of brightly clad dancers. Sarah Lancashire, while not having the greatest voice, belts out some pleasant enough numbers, and the chorus is strong. However, it’s Reece Shearsmith that saves the day. From his shy, hangdog beginning to his revolutionary moment, demonstrating that even “simple folk” like him can “rise up and take a stand”, Shearsmith’s performance is reminiscent of Palin’s in the original film, the likeable, put-upon, hard-working man, and he carries it off delightfully. He also delivers a number of songs impressively, given singing isn’t his strongest asset. He also has a real northern accent…which is more than you can say for some of the cast.
Betty Blue Eyes was short lived in the West End, opening in April 2011 and closing in November the same year. The soundtrack is fun and entertaining and delivers an atmospheric and comprehensive substitute for the real thing if you didn’t manage to see it, but it lacks really catchy numbers which you just can’t get out of your head, or big emotional jolts which make your eyes fill up with tears – and that’s, lets face it, what makes for a great, and memorable musical.