Stiles and Drewe’s farcical musical returns to London in its firs-ever revival since the original West End production over a decade ago. Guillermo Nazara shares his thought on this comedy set during the starvation times of World War II, to let us know what‘s to expect this highly boar-ing show.
There comes a moment in the life of every man when he must decide what to do with his sow – whatever meaning you wanna give to that sentence (just don’t tell me, please…). Anyway, if any lesson can learned from taking long solitary strolls along the buzzing streets of London (I identify as drama-queer), is that absolutely anything can be turned into a musical – and absolutely anything has the chances of being complete and utter rubbish. That last word might as well serve as quite an accurate description of Betty Blue Eyes‘s setting: war, poverty, corn-studded feet (yes, that’s a thing that’s explored a lot in this one) and a filthy pig that everybody loves in fall for (though that’s happened to me before…).
But no matter how much dirt this show may be sunk in, the writers have managed to do what only entertainers (and maybe also bankers, though that’s an extension of clowning) can do: make it look great. It has the story, it has the excitement and it has the score. Betty Blue Eyes successfully passes with merit all the requirements to make of it a really good musical: it’s interesting, engaging, memorable and, above all, fun – in a very, very, VERY (read the latter with the traditional, national squeak) British way.
Written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (music and lyrics) in tandem with Ron Cowne and Daniel Lipman (book), this rather brilliant farce set during the famine times of World War II is a constant reminder of its creators’ understanding (and deep know-how) of the musical theatre form. Its structure is almost immaculate, and most importantly, highly efficient. Following the usual outline comprising all of the classics (a full-ensemble opening number, the I Want Song, the ballroom scene and… you know what? you get the picture), the work achieves to make itself distinctive despite its style not being revolutionary.
Featuring extremely amusing scenes and laugh-guaranteed dialogues, the script seamlessly ties up the piece’s biggest accomplishment: its songs, which apart from their narrative effectiveness both regarding story and setting, are incredibly (and sometimes annoyingly) memorable – its title number strongly capable of getting stuck into your head for days. Mmmm… I’m starting to think that I could milk this and sue the producers for jeopardizing my mental health… Nah, they could use my previous reviews as counter-evidence… With musical direction by Aaron Clingham, its limited band (counting on only 3 instrumentalists) manages, however, to provide rich textures thanks to its cleverly resourceful orchestrations – all in all, resulting in a deeply compelling score whose only flaw lies in the endings of some tunes, occasionally not providing the “big finale” vibe they seem destined to obtain.
Directed by Sasha Regan and choreographed by Kasper Cornish, the limited possibilities of the blackbox theatre are in general well exploited, and despite some unsatisfying blocking, the final feel is that the reduced space is somehow uplifted. The choral numbers are not restrained whatsoever, and to some level, the intimacy of the place provides viewers with a more direct experience than what they may encounter in a conventional proscenium venue. Employing a simple but highly illustrative and multi-purpose design by Reuben Speed, with lighting by Alistair Lindsay, the depiction of a gloomy mid-century London is delivered correctly, with some of the scene transitions also helping with pacing and, overall, generating pleasing aesthetics in spite of the theatre’s restricitons.
As for the cast, the whole company’s energy and charismatic commitment (the most praisable points coming from when they work as an ensemble) definitely are a laudable mention, exuding stunning chemistry and, above all, palpable dedication to both their characters and audience. Among them all, Sam Kipling in the lead role of Gilbert Chilvers gives a stand-out performance through his naturally naive charm, which works in good balance with Amelia Atherton’s (as his wife, Joyce) projected eyebrow attitude. In addition, Josh Perry, as secret pig-lover Henry Allardyce, gives a hilarious rendition thanks to his unmistakably inherent comedy bone, which is shared by David Pendlebury’s mischievously uproarious portrayal of Inspector Wormold.
“Every so often one has to shove one’s face in the shit just so you can lift your head up and smell the sweet roses afterwards”. There might be a lot of talk about crap in this show, but there’s certainly none when it comes to it. Funny, warm and impressively absorbing, Betty Blue Eyes is, by all means, a delightful example of both compelling and good quality entertainment. Set yourself for a late night of Fawlty Towers marathon after the show, and you’ve got yourself a dish of full English camp.
All pictures credit to Michaela Walsh.
Betty Blue Eyes plays at London’s Union Theatre until 22 April. Tickets are available on the following link.