After success with Bennett’s classic play Enjoy, the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Alan Bennett season continues with the musical comedy Betty Blue Eyes, based on his screenplay for the 1984 film A Private Function. The musical was first produced by Cameron Mackintosh in 2011, with a book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, and with music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe respectively. Now in a new production, with the West Yorkshire Playhouse as one of its co-producers, Betty Blue Eyes embarks on a new tour, with all of its Bennett-esque charm being welcomed by the Leeds audience.
Betty Blue Eyes is set in 1947 Britain, which is economically struggling after World War II, and the inhabitants of the Yorkshire town of Shepardsford are struggling too, particularly with having to live off the meagre meat rations they receive from their local butchers. One citizen by the name of Gilbert Chilvers, a timid chiropodist played by Haydn Oakley, is struggling in particular, especially when he promised his wife Joyce (played by Amy Booth-Steel) that he’d step up to the plate and provide for them both. When it’s announced that the members of the town council are hosting a private banquet to celebrate the upcoming marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Joyce is determined to attend the big social event with her husband. However, they never receive an invitation, and so hatch the most devious plan ever – yep, they plan to steal the banquet’s huge pork roast, which comes in the form of the town’s ‘illegal’ pig Betty who, as you can guess from the title, has mesmerising blue eyes, and has been fattened up by the town council specifically for the banquet. Despite the buzz around the social event, it’s still no excuse to be gorging on meat that should be rationed, and with villainous Ministry of Meat inspector Mr Wormold (played by Tobias Beer) on the prowl, none of Shepardsford’s citizens are safe – especially Betty and her puppeteer.
Betty Blue Eyes is a very tight musical, with funny, witty songs and a brilliant cast, who all work incredibly well together as an ensemble. There are some fantastic characters, which not only engage the audience, but do convey some of the important social ideas at the time the play is set. The town council members, for instance, look down on the self-described ‘nobodies’ of the town, and while they do this in a comic and light-hearted way, you can still see how the class system after the war was still prominent. That’s the thing with Betty Blue Eyes – it takes the dark aspects of post-war Britain, such as the economic struggle and food shortages, and turns it into a fun, interesting piece of theatre without bringing the mood down.
The simple set is easy to navigate, too, and efficiently allows the company to switch to different scenes with ease while still looking detailed and tidy. This is also enhanced by the simple yet effective lighting, which accentuates the drab architecture of the town and helps paint an image of struggling post-war Britain, but again, it doesn’t dampen the mood.
Betty Blue Eyes is something a bit different from some of the other musicals on offer at the moment, and is warm, charming and well put together. Whether you’re a Bennett fan or a musical-lover Betty Blue Eyes is certainly well worth checking out.
Betty Blue Eyes is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 5 July. For more information and tickets, see the West Yorkshire Playhouse website.