Review: Betty Blue Eyes (Liverpool Playhouse)

It might seem grimly appropriate that the first night of a production about Britain at a time of austerity coincided with a day of strikes against government cuts and wage freezes. But while it has an obvious contemporary relevance, Betty Blue Eyes is an exuberant musical comedy that’s set in 1947. It certainly has a sharp eye for social inequality and the madness of government bureaucracy, but we’re invited to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

And laugh the Playhouse audience certainly did. The show’s to some extent a proven hit, having premiered in London to great acclaim in 2011 (though it closed after a surprisingly short West End run). Now the Liverpool Playhouse has collaborated on an updated production with theatres in Colchester, Salisbury and West Yorkshire (an enterprising way of responding to the aforementioned cuts, perhaps). It’s touring Britain’s regions, where its satirical take on small-town snobbery is likely to be keenly appreciated.

Based on the Alan Bennett film A Private Function, Betty Blue Eyes is set in the fictional town of Shepardsford, the kind of Yorkshire community familiar from such postwar novels (and films) as Room At The Top and Billy Liar. Chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers’s social climbing wife Joyce is determined to get an invitation to Shepardsford’s event of the year, an exclusive dinner to celebrate Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth’s wedding. A group of self-serving local bigwigs hoping to enjoy a pork roast feast at the banquet aim to circumvent the meat rationing restrictions by illegally rearing their own pig – the Betty of the show’s title, who appears on stage in the form of a large puppet. When Joyce’s ambitions are thwarted, she and Gilbert take their revenge by kidnapping the pig. To add to the comic complications, when Joyce’s aged mother overhears Gilbert and Joyce talk about killing Betty, she thinks they’re planning to murder her.

Haydn Oakley and Amy Booth-Steel

Haydn Oakley and Amy Booth-Steel

Alan Bennett’s very British screenplay is here for the most part skilfully adapted for the stage by two Americans, Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, with cleverly constructed songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. My memories of the original film are admittedly quite hazy, but Cowen and Lipman’s saccharine ending seemed a little too ‘Hollywood’ to me, equating happiness with social and material success in a way that seemed at odds with the main thrust of the story.

The central ‘pig’ plot has always been rather slight and this too is a problem in some scenes, where both the comedy and the drama seem underpowered. Another weakness is the predictability of some of the characterisation, but the production has an excellent cast, several of whom have multiple roles. Haydn Oakley is gentle, self-effacing Gilbert and Amy Booth-Steel his ruthless wife, whose similarity to Lady Macbeth is comically highlighted by the occasional line from Shakespeare’s play. Sally Mates, a musical theatre veteran who was in the original production of Les Miserables, is frequently hilarious as Joyce’s interfering mother. There’s another strong comic performance fromTobias Beer as a fearsome, Gestapo-style meat inspector. The greedy, self-important local councillors – including one played to especially squirm-inducing effect by Kit Benjamin – probably have their present day equivalents in every town, as audiences around the country may well have noted.

Betty Blue Eyes is light and watchable, with (as you’d expect from Alan Bennett) enough observational insight to make it occasionally something more. If you’re a Bennett fan and Britain’s numerous recent sporting disasters (not to mention those cuts) have made you gloomy, you should certainly consider heading for the Playhouse.

Betty Blue Eyes continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until 2 August. For more information, click HERE.