‘Highly entertaining & all-too-pertinent social satire’: BETTY BLUE EYES – Union Theatre

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Union Theatre, London – until 22 April 2023

When the Union Theatre was forced to cancel its excellent production of Noel Coward’s Peace in Our Time after only a few performances back in March 2020, little did the venue know it would be more than three years until it would produce its own work once again. The theatre itself reopen some time ago but Betty Blue Eyes is its first in house production since then, a revival of the Stiles and Drewe musical from 2011 about social mobility, the wedding of Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and a pig heist. Directed by Sasha Regan, this charming production is a long overdue reminder of the adaptive skills of the Union Theatre and its role as a fringe leader in the presentation of intimate musical theatre.

Based on a film written by Alan Bennett and Malcolm Mowbray and set in a wholesome if cartoony version of Britain immediately following the Second World War, Betty Blue Eyes is nonetheless a surprisingly sharp satirical work that has added resonance in 2023. Much has happened since its premiere more than a decade ago as the optimism of the early 2010s has given way to a far graver present, yet Stiles and Drewe’s songs along with the book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman about food rationing, hunger and working class deprivation couldn’t be more timely as food prices rise and ordinary families struggle to stay afloat.

The small northern town in which it is set has a fairly timeless existence, riven with the same social and political divides that speak to our times as rich councillors and their landowning friends connive to ensure that they retain the best of the food on offer, hiding an illegal pig at farm that they intend to serve at a banquet while the housewives of the town spends hours in futile queues at butchers’ shops for meat that never comes. But society is just as divided along class lines and the same rich social leaders look down on the town’s newest family, a local chiropodist and his wife who they actively bully, preventing him from establishing a surgery on the parade based solely on their belief in his inferiority to them.

The musical opens with a cast-wide demand for Fair Shares for All, a motif that is reprised several times during the show as the post-war effects of rationing create tough circumstances for the townspeople, while the arrival of an evil meat inspector on the look-out for illegal supply that closes most of the food shops leads to Les Misérables-style riots towards the end of Act One as inequality and the insistence that these decent people should just accept and endure increasing privation with no sign of improvement pushes them to the edge. Sometimes the musical’s social commentary is so on the nose, it is as though it were written yesterday.

And in attempting to address social position and the lengths individual families must go to to protect themselves, there is also a major theme looking at modern masculinity in the immediate post-war context, especially for men like chiropodist hero Gilbert who do not conform to the soldierly notion of manliness that is still idolised, particularly by his wife Joyce who repeatedly questions her husband’s ability to provide. Gilbert is a sweet, mild-mannered man who doesn’t fit the prototype hero model that emerged from the war and in his daily life is unable to seize opportunities without her needing to intervene on his behalf. Cowen and Lipman drop a couple of Macbeth references into the script and even a Lord of the Flies incitement to ‘kill the pig’ but Gilbert fails to heed them.

Gilbert is offering a different and better kind of masculinity, based on goodness and decency rather than physical strength and blood-lust which becomes one of the major outcomes of Betty Blues Eyes, giving Gilbert a significant solo in Act Two exploring The Kind of Man I Am in which he reflects on himself and doubts his ability to act when required. Of course, in the end it is clear that Joyce adores her husband really and must go on her own character journey to remind her of that, but a comedy musical of this kind is an interesting place to have a discussion about changing perceptions of manliness and, like Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, put the unassuming nice guy at the heart of the story.

All of this underlying seriousness is encased in a light and entertaining comic wrapper, and the interaction between the light farce surface style of Betty Blue Eyes and some of its deeper political themes is nicely balanced in Regan’s production for the Union Theatre that holds both of these styles together very nicely. The director controls the pace, giving just enough space to the introspective character numbers that helps the audience to find emotional value in the trajectory of the leads and their plight while the big ensemble song and dance segments are full of energy. Regan draws out the broader story of the town and the complex interactions between the groups of men and women who are simultaneously a community and rivals for the scraps of food available each day, while the petty standoffs about class are simultaneously funny and vicious, creating a sense of jeopardy and dislocation for the central couple that drives their actions.

Most impressive though is Kasper Cornish’s choreography – something the Union Theatre has always done well – despite the astonishingly small performance space for the number of cast members present on stage. This is inventive stuff from Cornish who combines tap and jazz styles that pay tribute to Fosse primarily but also cabaret while generating power in the ensemble numbers such as Steal the Pig and the Act Two opener Another Little Victory that sees 15 dancers on stage simultaneously. Given the meat rationing theme, Cornish has some fun with canes made to look like strings of sausages and also creates a two-tier system for working class and more affluent characters, but the range and inventiveness of the choreographic choices across the production are a joy and a chance to play with different approaches that meld really well together.

Regan easily directs the flow between lots of different locations on Reuben Speed’s two tier set, as well as a flashback sequence for Joyce who recalls her first meeting with Gilbert during the Blitz, and the placement of scenes helps the action run smoothly. There are a couple of particularly well managed sequences of high farce set to music including the Pig No Pig number that involves lots of running around, multiple character entrances and nicely timed potential disasters averted by some quick thinking as well as the Finale Ultimo with multiple ‘confessions’ and perfectly timed coordinated reactions that every cast member seems to relish. There is a real liveliness to this Union Theatre production that make its 2 hour and 40-minute running time zip by.

And then, of course, there is the pig herself, the titular Betty named by the wealthy Mr Allardyce after the Princess and becomes obsessed with her blue eyes. There are various ways this could have gone, and in fact, there’s no actually reason to see Betty at all but the Union have a rather lovely rag-doll-style pig puppet made from scraps of cloth to be roughly life size and operated by one of the cast members. Appearing for the first time towards the end of Act One, there is convincing personality in the puppet and although used sparingly throughout the show, adds nicely to the chaos of Joyce and Gilbert’s home during the farcical scenes, while the deliberate cuteness given to Betty in the use of floral cloth squares helps to reinforce the difficulty everyone has in killing her later in the show.

The story is peopled by some very Alan Bennett-ish characters with a great capacity for interior life and only modest expectations for themselves. Stiles and Drewe have drawn that across very nicely into their musical capturing a very British fascination with prestige and snobbery, a desire to maintain the status quo at the expense of others but also a very particularly desire for betterment, to achieve a little more than you were born into through the conduct of a respectable and, where possible, dignified life. So while chiropodist Gilbert is a comedy character in that mode with a modest profession, his dream of a permanent practice and a decent home with his wife and Joyce’s desire to be part of the town’s social circle may seem like small ambitions but are enormous and consuming in the context of their lives to which Bennet, and here Stiles, Drewe, Cowen and Lipman give a genuine emotional purpose.

Joyce is a wonderful character, a very capable and worthy heroine trapped by the times into the role of housewife but more than a match for any of the town’s menfolk. There is a touch of the social climber in Joyce and the haughty disdain of the ladies hurts her but she shows great resourcefulness and pride in refusing to be cowed by them. Played by Amelia Atherton, Joyce is a character to root for as she tries to make her mark on local society and come to terms with where her life has gone. Atherton makes Joyce strident and decisive in her marriage but also takes her through some more introspective reflections on the slight dint in social status that marrying Gilbert and moving has created, as well as a misguided and momentary lack of faith in those choices. But Atherton never loses the audience’s sympathy or investment in the Chilvers family’s eventual success.

Gilbert is one of those great comic characters who gets into a series of accidental scrapes that seem to be beyond his control before finally taking decisive action that brings the things he wants. Sam Kipling is a great unassuming hero, riling up the women of the town with his Magic Fingers that ease their aching feet and there are some great scenes as they flirt or even throw themselves at him with Kipling’s Gilbert affecting not to notice while quietly panicking. The devotion to his wife and their joint dream of a stable home is well explained while Gilbert’s questioning of his ability to be a man against a backdrop of war heroes and town bullies is very affecting.

The rest of the cast people the town nicely and give a engaging sense of its politics and social structure. Josh Perry gets plenty of laughs with Henry Allardyce’s very innocent adoration of Betty, David Pendlebury has great fun as the boo-hiss Inspector Wormold dressed like a Gestapo character from Allo Allo while Stuart Simon is a comparable baddie in Dr Swaby determined to keep the Chilvers in their place. But much of the success of this production rest in the all-singing all-dancing ensemble who deliver Cornish’s choreography with real verve and impressive coordinated control in a tiny space that charts the growing frustration of the town.

There’s so much to admire in this revival of Betty Blue Eyes and the many interesting choices that Regan and her team have made. A bigger stage would certainly create more space for the choreography and more location options within the set but the intimacy of the Union Theatre and the proximity of the audience to the characters and story offer a more immersive experience than the show’s last London outing at the Novello. So, welcome back to the Union’s in-house company with this highly entertaining and all-too-pertinent social satire.

Betty Blue Eyes is at the Union Theatre until 22 April and tickets are £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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