The last time I saw a production of Betty Blue Eyes, it was 2011, the year of the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Now in 2018, in the same year of the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, comes a student production from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, of a show set in 1947, the year of the then Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. The circumstances then are rather different than they are now, and with food rationing continuing after the Second World War, citizens resort to rather desperate means to get hold of desired food items. Moral dubiousness aside, the key maxim with this sort of thing is: don’t get caught.
This local community (the exact location is, if I recall correctly, not mentioned in the narrative) is, like other communities in the vicinity, subjected to the rigorous checks of Inspector Wormold, from the Ministry of Food, who is tasked with ensuring rationing regulations are being adhered to and no ‘illegal meat’ is being traded. His definition of illegal meat seems to extend to any meat at all, however, so it’s no surprise that Henry Allardyce (Jake Lomas) has gone about secretly rearing Betty, a pig apparently named after Princess Elizabeth (now HM The Queen). Bacon rationing did not end in Britain until 1954.
I deal with what I assume is the proverbial elephant in the room for fans of the show: the pig is not animatronic, as it was in the West End production, but rather a puppet. The puppeteers, or rather handlers, are not named in the programme (make of that what you will), and they make the relevant pig noises themselves. It all works in the production’s favour, however, as the focus is centred more on the leading human couple, Gilbert Chivers (Brendan Mageean) and his wife Joyce Chilvers (Emily Harper at the performance I attended – the role was shared with Rebecca d’Lacey) and Joyce’s mum, simply called Mother Dear (Jenny Coates).
Whatever wonders make-up and wigs can do (quite a lot, as it goes) there’s no escaping that a student production invariably has practically every character over the age of 30 somewhat miscast. That is probably the one thing that makes this production look and feel like a student showcase – in almost every other regard, such is the standard that one might be forgiven for thinking this was a professional touring production. The choreography comes across as rather restrained in places, perhaps due to relative lack of performance space in the large ensemble numbers, but more likely in keeping with the prudent behaviour of the era. Either way, it is well executed.
There’s something deeply ironic about a community that likes to have Chilvers visit them in person at home to perform chiropody, when all the talk is of austerity and times being hard. Or at least there is until his rates are revealed at the end of a consultation. For reasons explained in the show he does not have his own surgery, or the use of anyone else’s, so home visits are his specialty. Elsewhere, there are elements of brilliance in the singing. The harmonies in ‘Magic Fingers’, where several of Chilvers’ patients share the same positive feelings about the treatment they receive, are sublime, as is the song’s subtle commentary on the frustration these characters face.
A band of nine, directed by Verity Quade, supports a cast of twenty-four impeccably. It’s a very, very British show: there may be a fair bit of song and dance in this musical, but there’s a fair share of queuing to be seen too. The stand-out performance is from Harper’s Joyce, asserting a palpable and consistent desire to move onwards and upwards in the world. She has a beautiful singing voice, which comes into its own during ‘Nobody’, a song of defiance against those who are so quick to judge.
There are some laugh out moments, such as when Joyce’s mother misunderstands the context of the conversation between Gilbert and Joyce that she is eavesdropping on. Animal lovers will be relieved, if not satisfied, with the final outcome in this eccentric and enjoyable production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The country’s long-suffering citizens are being told by the government that there will soon be fair shares for all. With rationing, unemployment, and the coldest winter for decades, the only bright spark on the horizon is the impending marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
Enter Betty, an adorable pig, reared illegally so that dignitaries can celebrate the Royal Wedding with a lavish feast while the local population makes do with Spam.
Based on the film A Private Function with original story by Alan Bennett, book by Ron Cowan and Daniel Lipman, music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe, Betty Blue Eyes was originally produced in London by Cameron Mackintosh.
Director: Elva Makins
Musical Director: Verity Quade
Choreographer: Omar Okai
This production is presented in arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe).
Stratford Centre, Newham, London E15 1BX
Friday 15th June and Saturday 16th June 2018