Betty Blue Eyes is a relatively new musical, having received its première in London in 2011. Its run was short due to low audience numbers and at the time this was blamed on difficult economic times. It has subsequently been remounted in various places but has never really taken off, which is unfortunate because with an appealing story line, likeable music, and some catchy songs, it has much to commend it.
Betty Blue Eyes was written by Ron Cowan and Danial Lipman, based on the screenplay A Private Function by Alan Bennett and Malcolm Mowbray. Cowan and Lipman are perhaps better known for their TV scripts such as Queer as Folk and Knots Landing. The music is by George Styles with lyrics by Anthony Drewe, who collaborated on major successes such as Honk!, Mary Poppins, and Peter Pan: A Musical Adventure. With creatives of such stature, it is perhaps surprising that Betty Blue Eyes has not yet been more successful than it has.
The action is set in the township of Shepardsford, Yorkshire in 1947 in post-WWII Britain. The country needs to get back on its feet, and the essentials (and luxuries) of life are in short supply. Consequently, it is a time of austerity and rationing is in force so that everyone receives their ‘fair share’. But human nature being what is, and Britain’s social class structure also being what it is, there are those who believe they are ‘entitled’ to more. A local official is planning a special dinner to celebrate the engagement of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, and the problem is how to cater for the event – ration coupons will only go so far – and so a plot is hatched to supplement the catering with roasted pork that has been illegally obtained. Their plan comes unstuck when the pig they have targeted is stolen while an obsessive inspector from the Ministry of Food is zeroing in on the truth. Mixed up in all of this is local chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers, who is intensely enthusiastic in plying his trade, and his wife Joyce, who has had enough of being part of hoi polloi and desperately wants to become a member of ‘society’ and to be invited to the celebratory dinner. Gilbert and Joyce purloin the pig (known as Betty) and this leads to much mayhem, amusement, and drives the action.
Therry Theatre’s production is directed by Ben Todd (Steady Rain, Jekyll and Hyde, The Audience), musically directed by Katie Packer (Once Upon a Mattress, Seussical the Musical, Annie) and choreographed by Vanessa Redmond (High Fidelity, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown). Between them they have created a cheerful and exuberant production, but it needs more polish in some areas. More on that later.
The cast of twenty-three is ably led by Jared Frost (Gilbert) and Trish Hart (Joyce). Between them they carry the emotional core of the show, and they do it well. Both have good singing voices, especially Hart, but pleasingly they don’t rely just on their voices: they are both fine actors and create believable and attention-grabbing characters with whom the audience can empathise.
Greg Janzow (Swaby), Jon McKay (Lockwood), Craig Ellis (Alardyce) and Matt Redmond (Sutcliffe) play a quartet of local dignitaries who are not content with merely having ‘a fair share’ and are planning the royal celebration in a lavish style. The score provides them with several excellent songs and funny scenes which they tackle with gusto if not with total confidence. Neville Phillis plays the role of the inspector with an imposing basso profundo voice and presence, but his insecure vocals dampened the overall impact of his performance. Carolyn Adams was a complete scene stealer as the aged mother of Joyce and breathed vim and vigour into all her scenes. Nicholas Mitchell made a fine Prince Philip with a wonderfully affected royal wave, and Grace Frost was almost regal as Princess Elizabeth. The other members of the cast provided able support, with some lovely cameo moments. The entire cast, when singing as an ensemble, was melodious but needed more precision and articulation. This is always important, but particularly so when the show starts with a large chorus number. For the most part the ten-piece musical ensemble provides robust and tuneful accompaniment. The choreography is uncomplicated and generally well executed by the cast.
The set was designed by Ben Todd and Loren Panno. It featured a strong use of upstage scenic projections which had a delightful comic book feel about them (and some local influences, like Oswalds photography studio). Together with an efficient use of wheel-on/ wheel-off stage items, the action of the play flowed smoothly, and a sense of place was always established.
Without giving anything away, Betty does appear on stage and her big blue eyes replete with extravagant lashes never fail to delight the audience.
It is very pleasing that Therry Theatre has decided to mount the Australian première of Betty Blue Eyes, but it is also a brave choice. It’s not a well-known show, but it should be.