Betty Blue Eyes
West Yorkshire Playhouse
Topically exploring English post-WW2 austerity measures, Betty Blue Eyes comes to The Playhouse where Leo Owen caught the show
It's 1947 and rations are low as we're whisked back in time with Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman's stage adaptation of Alan Bennett's Private Function. Propaganda posters, placards and a radio announcement set the scene as George Stiles and Anthony Drewe's opening number “Fair Shares For All” encapsulates the mixture of social discontent and British “make do” mentality prevalent at the time.
Strobe lighting symbolises a riot outside Metcalf's butcher's shop as a touring inspector from the Ministry of Food relishes closing yet another Yorkshire business, leaving residents to their diet of spam. Enterprising small town newcomer, Joyce Chilvers is keen to assimilate with the locals but is snubbed by all until her chiropodist husband takes action, stealing the unlicensed pig town councillors are harbouring in preparation for their very selective “private function” to celebrate Princess Elizabeth and Philip's royal wedding.
Sara Perks' clever fold out crescent-shaped set has steps either side and doors on multiple levels to represent the houses and businesses along the sought-after “Parade”. Costumes are bang-on period dress and in the heavy-fabric of their layered 1940s attire, it's a wonder cast maintain high energy performances in the Quarry Theatre's extreme heat.
Ginger-nut loving Betty is portrayed by Lauren Logan controlling an oinking, farting and nodding pig puppet. Leads Amy Booth-Steel (Joyce) and Haydn Oakley (Gilbert) are undoubtedly among the strongest performers, alongside Sally Mates as Joyce's 84 year-old comedic “Mother Dear”, in a cast ably switching between multiple roles.
Drewe and Stiles' musical score and lyrics are playful but fall a little flat in the first half with fewer memorable numbers. Two out of twelve musical numbers really stand out and thankfully one of these is reprised; “Magic Fingers” is a moving song, depicting lonesome ladies flirting with Gilbert, pining their pre-war husbands ("My husband had magic fingers before the war...").
More upbeat and slapstick is “Betty Blue Eyes”, finally introducing us to the titular character in comedic style; two men essentially sing a love song to a pig with camped-up dance moves reminiscent of "Singing In The Rain" while Gilbert removes a thorn from her “foot”. Andrew Wrights' choreography is equally enchanting in the strobe lit Primrose Ballroom scene, flashing back to Gilbert and Joyce's first meeting during the blitz.
The second half flies by with light-hearted musical numbers like “It's An Ill wind" complete with chicken head-bobbing, a tea-pot dance and gas masks. Judging from audience cackles, “Pig, No Pig!” is the likely favourite, parodying Macbeth's famous dagger scene and including a particularly amusing contribution from Mates.
Cowen and Lipman's script includes some equally funny one-liners; after it's discovered horse meat is being sold someone quips, "Yesterday afternoon it ran in the 2:30 at York.” Joyce celebratory announces, "I believe sexual intercourse will be in order [after dinner]". Spam is moulded into a duck shape and a toy car with headlights is carried across the stage during Betty's kidnapping.
Although not without fault, Betty Blue Eyes boasts a strong cast, a live four piece orchestra playing backstage, some genuinely chuckle-inducing performances, likable lead characters, a few tunes that'll linger and although educational for the less in the know, still feels relevant in contemporary society as we struggle to recover from the economic depression.
Betty Blue Eyes shows at The West Yorkshire Playhouse until July 5:
by Leo Owen