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Review of Betty Blue Eyes at Union Theatre

There was a certain resonance with another royal wedding that took place around the time of this show’s previous incarnation back in 2011 – the storyline includes multiple references to the 1947 royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth (as she was then) to Philip Mountbatten. This time around, what audiences are likelier to identify with is the continued belt-tightening and having to make personal sacrifices. As far as Betty Blue Eyes goes, the Second World War might be over, but rationing was still in force (rather vigorously, as this show would have it), and so people queued for their foodstuffs, with no guarantee they would actually be able to get what they were after. A comparison with foodbanks in our day and age is inappropriate for many reasons, but recent shortages (at the time of writing) of various foods in UK supermarkets is not.

Betty Blue EyesFrom a technical perspective, this production still needs work: the lighting in particular seemed to be all over the place on press night. At one point, almost an entire verse was sung before it was clear who was singing it and from where on the dual-level stage, and there were several instances where cues had been missed for whatever reason. Ultimately, it didn’t affect the overall enjoyment of the show too much – one might even argue it provided an additional source of amusement.

More frustrating, however, were unamplified solo voices trying to sing above both ensemble, orchestra and dance movements, as well as a moment of fake piano playing, which was all the more noticeable in a smaller theatre than it would have been in a West End playhouse. From my front row vantage point, Betty (Georgia Boothman), the title character, was fully visible – not the case, I am reliably informed, for patrons sat further back.

There are moments when the narrative becomes so soppy and sentimental that I came close to being grateful for Inspector Wormold (David Pendlebury), the antagonistic official on a mission to ensure rationing regulations were adhered to and the stiffest possible penalties applied to anyone who fell foul of the rules. Especially – and this is where I really did agree with him – if the miscreants were town council executives who only looked after their own interests.

Then again, the show’s poignancy comes across well in some of the ballads, especially ‘Magic Fingers’ in the first half and ‘The Kind of Man I Am’ in the second. In the former, three of Gilbert Chilvers’ (Sam Kipling) chiropody patients, Mrs Roach (Emma Jane Fearnley), Mrs Lester (Jade Marvin) and Mrs Turnbull (Katie Stasi) tell of the brief respite Chilvers’ personal visits bring them from their otherwise difficult lives. In the latter, Chilvers himself responds to being chided by his wife Joyce (Amelia Atherton), with the lady of the house continuing to have substantial materialistic ambitions in a time of austerity.

Indeed, hardly anybody seems normal in this show, and you’d be forgiven for thinking something was in the water. This isn’t problematic in itself: after all, eccentric characters are more interesting than plain ones. But it poses a challenge for this production – it’s an ambitious one, with nineteen members of the company plus three musicians – because, in such a small space, it’s easy to overdo exaggerated characters and make them overly hammy. Thankfully, the show strikes a balance between playing to the gallery and recognising the intimacy of the performance space. Kasper Cornish’s choreography is remarkable, with the big ensemble numbers involving song-and-dance with very tight turnaround spaces for the actors.

But there was so much stage haze: it was so unrelenting that eventually, the venue’s fire alarm went off mid-song. And what was with Joyce’s sherry? It looked like squash to me, or even worse, urine – no wonder everyone else, including her own husband, refused it when offered. Still, the cast is very good, as is the score and the witty lyrics, and it’s a heart-warming and pleasant show.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

BOOK BY Ron Cowen & Daniel Lipman
MUSIC BY George Stiles
LYRICS BY Anthony Drewe
Based on the Handmade film ‘A Private Function’ and the original story by Alan Bennett and Malcom Mowbray.
Adapted from the screenplay by Alan Bennett

Originally produced by Cameron Mackintosh
Presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International

29 March 2023 – 22 April 2023


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