Betty Blue Eyes – ★★★

Betty Blue Eyes, Stile and Drewe’s 2011 terribly British musical comedy, gets its first London revival at the Union Theatre

Many theatre fans have spoken fondly about Betty Blue Eyes and often hoped for its return. Adapted from Alan Bennett’s A Private Function, the 2011 production starred Sarah Lancashire, Reece Shearsmith and none other than Kylie Minogue as the voice of the animatronic pig. It received Best New Musical nominations from the Olivier Awards and The Evening Standard Awards. This first London revival has big trotters to fill.

Photos by Michaela Walshe

It’s is 1947 and in the small Yorkshire town of Shepherdsford, rationing is still very much in force even though the bombs have stopped dropping. Wormold, the meat inspector for the Ministry of Food, roams the district on the hunt for butchers on the take. Little does he know that local dignitaries are fattening up an illegal pig in secret. They are determined to celebrate the forthcoming Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip not with austerity but with a private function featuring a lavish porky feast. But since they are ignoring the government’s promise of fair shares for all, their plan is about to go awry…

Musically, Betty Blue Eyes features an upbeat score with melodic hummable tunes by Stiles and Drewe. Quite a lot of them in fact. Combined with a book that ambles rather too long setting up the show’s world, the show’s Act One feels like a pleasant meander that begins to outstay its welcome. It’s a long 45minute wait before the pig is even referenced and the plot finally begins in earnest. 

The 18-strong singing company are excellent throughout. Whenever the ensemble perform together, their vocal prowess soars and they make a decent fist of Kasper Cornish‘s smile-inducing choreography. Musical director Aaron Clingham has coaxed some beautiful harmonies out of the cast. Magic Fingers, sublimely performed by Emma Jane FearnleyJade Marvin and Katie Stasi, is a dreamy paean to some much-needed escapism in their necessarily abstemious lives. 

Sam Kipling is exceedingly good in the lead role of chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers. He nails the right character balance of being endearingly awkward, thoroughly decent and terribly likeable. A talent to understand the unspoken push and pull of what makes his character ticks allow him to infuse his Act Two number The Kind of Man I Am with an emotional truth that goes way beyond the script – and drew the biggest applause of the evening. The danger of his wonderfully open, vulnerable portrayal is that it risks stealing the heart of the show from Betty herself.

Gilbert’s wife, Joyce, should be the show’s narrative driver. While others may only see her as a chiropodist’s wife, she eyes a different future for herself and husband. An early line of dialogue when the wife of a civic leader gets preferential meat in the butchers over her – “It’s not about steak, it’s about status” – sums up her social-climbing ambitions. An actual purloined Shakespearean line “Screw your courage to the sticking place” even casts Joyce as a Yorkshire Lady Macbeth, nudging her husband to vaulting ambition!  While she should be an irresistible force of nature in seeking out her fair share, Amelia Atherton‘s Joyce is far too polite and placed. Her unquenchable drive to be a ‘somebody’ is the fuel that should drive the show. 

Joyce has the razzle-dazzling show-stopping song of the show, Nobody. As the lyrics declare: “I see the way people smirk / Maybe their jibes wouldn’t work / If I could move in high circles“. It should be a gutsy, claw-your-way-to-the-top anthem. Instead, it’s a dud. The show’s “orchestra” of three musicians are adept at pitching their volume to accommodate an un-miked cast but Nobody needs some oomph. Whether Atherton’s Joyce is simply too tasteful or vocally incapable, the delicious belt that is needed for this song is entirely missing. Despite the musical backing being played at a fraction of the volume to do the song justice, the performer’s vocals still manage to get lost in the mix. Who in the rear-half audience of this intimate venue can hear the lyrics? Nobody! 

So when Joyce throws off her tabard to reveal a glamorous dress in an ambition-fuelled fever dream and the male ensemble dance with canes of link sausages behind her, it feels confused and not earned rather than exhilaratingly camp. 

One must ask why director Sasha Regan let Betty Blue Eyes‘ big number get away so badly. But the questions don’t stop there. The lighting design is noticeably problematic, you start to wonder what went wrong. For a fun, fizzy show, the cast are frequently lit from overhead rather than from the front, creating unintentionally dark shadows on the cast, and indeed the show.  Staircases are lit while performers are talking elsewhere. This may suggest a lack of technical rehearsal time, although the decision to swathe so much haze on the stage, that you expect Brigadoon to emerge from the fog at any time, must land at the lighting designer’s door. 

Reuben Speed‘s set design is another disaster. Trying to be all things, it ends up being nothing – only making sense when devoid of performers. The single moment it works is when the planning committee of Shepherdsford are literally talking down to Gilbert Chilvers from the upper lever of the set. But for most of the show, the set feels crammed into too small a space, the actors having to dodge practical lights as they descend stairs or play scenes from behind where the set is obscuring the action. 

You would think that the director and producer who is the founder of Union Theatre, who has directed such exquisite productions such as Iolanthe at Wilton’s Music Hall, would understand the challenges of her own venue. The seating rake is poor so anything performed on the floor will be invisible to half the audience further back in the auditorium. Betty herself, the pig named in honour of Princess Elizabeth, is a gorgeous piece of puppetry. Her fabric-patchwork design  feels right for the make-do-and-mend era in which the piece is set. Georgia Boothman‘s skill in making Betty real is extraordinary. She could make you vegan by the end of the show given the care and attention she gives to animating Betty. However the director’s decision to put the pig on the floor during her own theme song, the infectious Betty Blue Eyes, rendering her invisible for half the audience, is a baffling decision. 

Later, a pivotal moment when Gilbert and Joyce first meet, explaining why these two different characters ever got together, is played…guess where…at floor level!

There are many factors that make this production of Betty Blue Eyes timely and important. It’s the first in-house production at the Union Theatre since Covid. It’s the first London revival of Betty Blue Eyes. The timing of the run-up to a big Royal event, while a cost-of-living crisis is happening, is uncanny. The Union Theatre has just received a £120,000 bill from their landlord. So it’s bewildering that this production fails to seize the moment. With a glorious cast and a note-perfect performance by leading man Sam Kipling, this should have been a rave. Instead while the cast are fantastic, the production makes a pig’s ear of it. 

Can’t tell porkies. This could be so much better – ★★★ Three stars

Betty Blue Eyes Tickets

Betty Blue Eyes runs at the Union Theatre until 22 April 2023

Book Tickets