Fresh from her success as Piper in The Light Princess at the National Theatre, actress Amy Booth-Steel is playing determined social-climber Joyce Chilvers in the brand new touring co-production of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s musical comedy Betty Blue Eyes, opening at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester this week.
Based on Alan Bennett’s screenplay for the film A Private Function, with a book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, Betty Blue Eyes is set in 1947 austerity Britain and tells the story of humble chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers (being played by Haydn Oakley, straight from The Book of Mormon) and his wife Joyce. When an invitation to the social event of the year fails to materialise, the Chilvers resolve that they must do whatever it takes to get their fair share of the banquet’s centrepiece – a rations-busting illegal pork roast!
The regional premiere, staged by Mercury Theatre artistic director Daniel Buckroyd, is the biggest show the Mercury has produced in many years. Supporting Booth-Steel and Oakley will be 18 experienced actors, singers, dancers and musicians from the West End and the best of regional theatre.
In addition to The Light Princess, Booth-Steels’s stage credits include the National Theatre’s production of She Stoops to Conquer, the UK tour of One Man, Two Guvnors and the role of La Rosa in Sister Act at the London Palladium. She also made the final 12 in the BBC’s search for Nancy, I’d Do Anything.
Musical Theatre Review’s Lisa Martland caught up with a tired but happy Booth-Steel when she was in rehearsals: “It may be long hours, but it’s fantastic, I’m loving the process. It sounds like a slog, but it’s a dream life. Joyce is a character that has such strength and wit, yet also shows moments of real vulnerability and warmth. She and Gilbert are underdogs so the audience really routes for them and eggs them on to fight for their position. There’s a whole range of emotions on display and some great numbers too. My favourite is when Joyce is sick of everyone putting her down and defies anyone to treat her like a ‘Nobody’.”
Booth-Steel is also looking forward to playing opposite her co-star Oakley (“such a fabulous, well-rounded actor and a joy to work with”) and Sally Mates as Mother Dear.
“Joyce has some fantastic comic scenes with Gilbert and Mother Dear which are absolutely hilarious. She’s so spunky! Nothing gets past Joyce. It’s going to be such a wonderful challenge taking on this role and putting a fresh spin on it.”
Talking of fresh spins, director Buckroyd has suggested that he is planning to take quite a different approach to Cameron Mackintosh’s 2011 West End production of Betty Blues Eyes at the Novello Theatre – looking to bring out the ‘make do and mend’ feel of post-war austerity Britain.
I ask Booth-Steel how that has worked in the rehearsal room. “Everyone’s playing lots of different characters and involved in the moving of the set etc, it’s all linked to that ‘make do and mend’ theme – that we are all there for each other and getting stuck in. And our Betty the pig is not the same as before, although I wouldn’t want to give too much away! There have been small changes to the script and score too.”
After Colchester (continuing until 5 April), Betty Blue Eyes tours to all those venues involved in the co-production between Mercury Theatre Colchester, Salisbury Playhouse (24 April–17 May), West Yorkshire Playhouse (12 June–5 July), Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse (9 July–2 August), as well as two other spaces, the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (15 –19 April) and Norwich Theatre Royal (27–31 May).
It’s a fair time to be away from home, but that doesn’t put off Booth-Steel: “I toured last year for five months in One Man, Two Guvnors, including going overseas to Australia and Hong Kong. I enjoy it, you get to perform in front of so many different types of audience and in different spaces.”
One of the best experiences of the actress’ career so far has been her involvement in the Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson groundbreaking new musical The Light Princess which closed after a limited run at the National Theatre in February. Booth-Steel is emotional when reflecting on her journey with the show: “I was there from the beginning, about five years ago, saw it in all shapes and forms, and played lots of different parts. There were several different versions of my character, Piper.
“It was something that was so close to my heart and I felt so lucky to be part of such an amazing project, Rosalie Craig [who played the title role] was such incredible fun from day one. We had an amazing time in the studio for three months, working around character, voice and all the difficult stage techniques. I would love the show to come back in some form in years to come.”
The BBC talent search I’d Do Anything must seem an age away now, but Booth-Steel acknowledges that the programme opened doors for her. Indeed, musical director Martin Lowe saw her on the show and invited her over to the National Theatre, a meeting which resulted in the actress workshopping lots of new material at the NT Studio and, ultimately, led to her getting involved in The Light Princess.
So Booth-Steel has come a long way from selling ice-creams during the run of The Sound of Music at the London Palladium (a production which she bizarrely also ended up appearing in!), and the future looks mighty positive.
“I can’t wait now to enjoy the tour of Betty Blue Eyes. I feel so lucky, my career has been so diverse and varied, one job has never been the same as the next.”
* The cast for Betty Blue Eyes includes Amy Booth-Steel, Haydn Oakley, Sally Mates, Laura Baldwin, Adam C Booth, Ricky Butt, Rebecca Louis, Kate Robson-Stuart, Oliver Izod, Joe Maxwell, Tobias Beer, Jenni Bowden, Rachel Knowles, Lauren Logan, Matt Harrop, Kit Benjamin and Anthony Ray. Joining director Daniel Buckroyd are choreographer, Andrew Wright, musical director Richard Reeday, designer Sara Perks, lighting designer Mark Dymock and sound designer Adam McCready.