Critics loved Betty Blue Eyes when opened in the West End in 2011, but the run didn’t last long. Based on Alan Bennett’s 1984 screenplay A Private Function, even at the time producer Cameron Macintosh foresaw a revival.
Think of bringing a West End musical to Liverpool, and the Playhouse isn’t the first place you’d imagine seeing it on stage – never mind co-producing it. But Betty Blue Eyes’s quaint and comedic old-fashioned charm works particularly well. In the last ten years at least, the only other foray into the genre there has been 2008’s culture year commission Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi.
First and foremost, the show is a simply a nice – and rare – opportunity to see an old school, traditional piece of musical theatre up close and personal under the historic theatre’s fitting proscenium arch. It’s a high quality production (in conjunction with three other venues across the country) punctuated with irresistible ensemble numbers that revels in its almost geeky Britishness. A live, four piece band seemed a surprisingly small musical accompaniment, but sounded good and was probably in keeping with the show’s general downsizing for the touring stage.
The story begins with an unassuming chiropodist and his wife who dreams of being a social climber, newcomers in a post-war village preparing for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten. With rationing still in effect and a cartoonishly psychotic official from the Ministry of Food on the prowl to destroy illegal meat, eventually the plot makes wider observations about the divisions between the have and have nots; and those who use their status to fiddle the system while pulling up the ladder from those beneath them. The town’s head honchos are illegally harbouring Betty to be the main course of a celebratory wedding banquet for VIPs only; but along the way she makes some friends who cannot bear to see her end up on a plate.
Hayden Oakley is spot on as our Bennet-esque hero Gilbert Chivers, and Amy Booth-Steel as his pushy wife Joyce is superb, especially during her big number Nobody. They are greatly complemented by Sally Mates as cranky Mother Dear, the trio demonstrating their chemistry perfectly during the hilarious Pig, No Pig.
With catchy tunes, quirky humour and the somewhat red herring charm of our heroine – a friendly, if somewhat stinky, ginger nut scoffing puppet pig, of all things – the simplicity of this musical belies a critique of society then and now; closing number Goodbye Austerity Britain is as subtle as a brick to the head on that score – but with that, you see why the Playhouse stepped in to help bring the show back.