Air-dried ham or pork scatchings? Review of Betty Blue Eyes at the Novello Theatre

2nd April 2011 (matinée), 14th preview (out of 24)

This musical comedy gets off to an energetic start with a neatly drawn portrait of an unnamed small Northern town and its inhabitants, at their wits’ end with rationing, and desperate for the simplest of culinary pleasures.  Each character is jockeying for position, with Joyce Chilvers desperate to be a ‘somebody’, her husband Gilbert dreaming of opening  a shop on the parade, the mayor trying to organise a ‘Private Function’ to celebrate the Royal Wedding, and the meat Inspector Wormold busy shutting down every butcher in town for selling illegal meat.  Adrian Scarborough as Wormold is particularly funny, with just a whiff of the Javert about him as he confiscates the meat and paints it regulation green to prevent consumption, an act which makes him feel ‘close to God’, in the wonderful song ‘Painting by Heart’.  Perhaps the most poignant number is ‘Magic Fingers’, in which three of Gilbert’s customers (he is a chiropodist) sing his praises in a siren-like chorus, each with a verse describing her own experiences in the war.  The trio, who sing this song particularly beautifully, include Gemma Wardle and Annalisa Rossi – try as we might we were unable to discover the third actress, as for some unaccountable reason, most of the female members of the cast are listed together on the official website as ‘ensemble’ – a singular injustice we feel.

The first half peaks with the long-awaited appearance of the animatronic Betty, the pig who is being illegally reared for the mayor’s banquet.  She is literally wheeled on to be serenaded in the title song by Jack Edwards as Henry Allerdyce – the song is irresistible (we’ve been humming it all weekend) but the onstage performance by Jack Edwards is a delight – he literally breathes life into the pig with his caresses and an endless supply of ginger snaps.  We go to the interval with a cliff-hanger, as Gilbert, thwarted by the town councillors, decides to take revenge by stealing Betty.

It is after the interval that the show begins to unravel a little.  After a rip-roaring start as Gilbert and Joyce wrestle the freshly pignapped Betty into a cupboard, the action starts to slacken off a little, and it seems as though the best songs have already gone by.  Too much is made of the smell emanating from the house (complete with green smoke?!)  The prolonged scenes with Betty in the house show up the limitations of the animatronics – she is lifelike enough, but inevitably static which limits the comic potential of having a pig running loose.

Her inability to run away also strains credulity when attempts are made to slit her throat.  The tone feels wrong.  We know deep down (spoiler alert!!) that she will not be slaughtered on stage like this.  In a different context this sense of unease might well be the point of the play, but we suspect that is not the aim of this scene.

As we would expect from source material such as Alan Bennett, the characters are well-observed and entertaining to watch.  However, the ending is curiously downbeat.  There are no real character arcs – even the relationship between Joyce and Gilbert seems to return to business as usual with Gilbert in the role of downtrodden husband on her terms.  The theme of Gilbert’s healing hands, introduced in the song ‘magic fingers’, is not brought out – we are denied the satisfaction of seeing him achieve his ambition of opening his own shop.

Overall, there is much to enjoy here, with witty dialogue, and the music and dancing are well done, with some brilliant character portraits and cameos.  Cameron Mackintosh made the right decision distributing copies of some of the tracks in order to promote the show (now all over youtube), as Stiles and Drewe have provided us with some seriously catchy songs, nicely performed.
It is the custom to mention previews and speculate on changes that might be made, but in this case we feel the show could definitely benefit from some judicious cutting and tidying up.  At 2 hours 40 minutes it does feel a little long.  But with a little more imagination this pig could really fly.

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2 Responses to Air-dried ham or pork scatchings? Review of Betty Blue Eyes at the Novello Theatre

  1. Pingback: Is Cameron Mackintosh better than a pig? | rageoffstage

  2. Pingback: Soho Cinders at the Queens Theatre: Still looking for the perfect fit | rageoffstage

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