First Night: Betty Blue Eyes, Novello Theatre, London

Musical pig shows it can sizzle

Michael Coveney
Thursday 14 April 2011 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Just in time for the royal wedding, we've tightened our belts, arranged a street party and put on a really good show. Not only that, the happy couple have moved among us and shared in the national mood.

Yes, the Queen and Prince Philip really do make an unscheduled appearance in the front room of Gilbert and Joyce Chilvers. The year is 1947 and times are hard. So the Yorkshire village has arranged a banquet and plans to defy the meat inspector by killing a pig.

In terms of musical comedy, too, we have gone back in time to a pastoral idyll before Lionel Bart and Andrew Lloyd Webber did their best to bring us up to date. The source is Alan Bennett's 1984 film, A Private Function, in which Michael Palin played the meek chiropodist Gilbert and Maggie Smith his Lady Macbeth of Ilkley.

Gilbert does feet, Joyce does fingers: she's a piano teacher. He dreams of a surgery on the village parade, she of social climbing and the great thing a musical can do is fill out those aspirations in big chorus numbers. So Gilbert's ministrations can become a yearning trio for ladies in housecoats and Joyce's lesson a big song-and-dance number with dry ice, ostrich feathers, top hat and tails.

Richard Eyre's production manages these elisions with dextrous efficiency on a design by Tim Hatley that takes us from back streets to tea shop and the butcher's and back to the Chilvers's, where Betty is smuggled and starts emitting green clouds of methane, prompting a smelly chorus in gas masks. Gilbert and Joyce sing duet in nose pegs, a West End first.

Ah, Betty, the star of the show, an animatronic pink beast, controlled remotely, but mostly static in her tin bath and mobile only in the eye, jaw and fluttering eyelash department. She doesn't move wondrously like the polar bear did in a recent "green" epic at the National Theatre. But she does win hearts, and that's the crux.

Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe have written a series of charming songs, with nostalgic lilt and literate rhyming that explain the effect Betty Blue Eyes has on stout-hearted men. The Bennett screenplay has been adapted by two Americans, Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, with absolute fidelity, though there's a much happier ending involving another pig-nap and a spam scam.

Joyce's mother, the incontinent 84-year-old who overhears plans of a murder and thinks her number's up, is played with a glum feistiness by Ann Emery. Reece Shearsmith and Sarah Lancashire are perfect casting as the Chilvers; he's charming, deft and moon-faced, while she translates her airs and graces into elegant dance lines and killer commands. Betty is their piggy in the muddle, all right.

Adrian Scarborough is a comic Hitler figure as Wormald the meat inspector, wielding a green paint brush to stigmatise any rogue joints, and the local council trio of David Bamber, Jack Edwards and Mark Meadows are presumably the sort of people David Cameron doesn't want to see spoiling our fun in two weeks.

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