Betty Blue Eyes – Mercury Theatre, Colchester and Touring

Haydn Oakley and Amy Booth-Steel in Betty Blue Eyes at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester and touring. Picture: Roy Tan

Haydn Oakley and Amy Booth-Steel in Betty Blue Eyes at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester and touring. Picture: Roy Tan

Betty Blue Eyes continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester and then tours until 2 August.

Fancy some apple sauce? Betty Blue Eyes is a nostalgia show really, a throwback, as you might expect of anything touched by the pen of Alan Bennett. Not, perhaps, for the young crowd. Yet anyone could enjoy it. It’s a hoot, very funny in places, beautifully acted by a cracking ensemble, and, of course, stars a very special and unique pig.

For a start, it’s a corker of a show because Daniel Buckroyd’s direction is so astute and witty, and Sara Perks’ design – the small town frontage has seven doors from which spring many a surprise – is atmospherically dour (evoking the penny-pinched post-war austerity of the tale taking place). George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s score – while not every number a hit – brings out the flavour of 1940s–1950s musicals, marginally tinged by Sondheim, and the choreography of three or four big dance numbers (Andrew Wright) is absolutely scintillating.

Launched at the Mercury Theatre, this hilarious, brand new touring staging, like the original London production brimming with good jokes, is based on the 1984 Maggie Smith/Michael Palin film A Private Function.

The only gleam of light in the town of Shepardsford in 1947 is that Princess Elizabeth is due to marry Prince Philip, so a feast in their honour is the mayor’s ambition. But, with rationing, members of the town council have to get hold of some contraband (a highly illegal pig called Betty) in order to make the event a big success, and at the same time evade the clutches of sly, slinky government food inspector Mr Wormold (a deliciously accident-prone performance from Tobias Beer) who is determined to wreck their plans.

Enter one intelligent pig, blue-eyed Betty, and her puppeteer, Lauren Logan, who not only manipulates Matt Harrop’s (Mr Allardyce’s) doomed puppet porker into a beautifully poignant personality, but also ensures she is one of the unerringly superb dancers in the cast. ‘Nobody’ and ‘Betty Blue Eyes’ feel – and look – like smash hits; the RAF number is mind-bogglingly good too.

Having been snubbed by the organisers of the big Royal Celebration, Haydn Oakley and Amy Booth-Steel, as the hapless chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers and his thrusting wife Joyce, get embroiled in the Betty saga by stealing the pig away from her would-be consumers. Both carry the show effortlessly. Oakley (surely deliberately?) looks, sounds and dresses like an Alan Bennett double and wins our hearts with his yearning for ‘a place on the parade’. As Joyce, Booth-Steel is a formidable power behind the throne, whose ability to think on her feet more than once saves the day. Her singing voice (‘Steal the Pig’) beats all those around her – and that’s saying something.

It’s a joy of a cast, Sally Mates’ elderly Mother Dear is a delight. Kit Benjamin’s merciless mayor, Dr Swaby, keeps everyone in stitches, while Oliver Izod’s knife-wielding Mr Nuttall is period-perfect. Joe Maxwell’s strutting Duke looks like a spitting image of Prince Andrew.

Let’s not forget the calibre of the solo singing, either – nor two super male and female trios, as crisp as a solo. And while the numbers don’t all sound perfectly balanced, there are some super solo touches (Izod’s violin and accordion above all). Musical director and keyboardist Richard Reeday and double-bassist Sandy Suchodolski acquit themselves like heroes.

Roderic Dunnett

www.mercurytheatre.co.uk 

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Amy Booth-Steel on Betty Blue EyesInterview

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