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Review: Betty Blue Eyes @ The Oxford Playhouse

In 1947, although conflict had ceased two years previously, Britain was still living in the economic shadow of the Second World War. Clement Attlee was Prime Minister, the National Health Service was being established, and a 21 year-old Princess Elizabeth was preparing to marry her distant cousin Phillip Mountbatten in Westminster Abbey. It is this era that the musical comedy Betty Blue Eyes inhabits – a time of post-war austerity, petty squabbles over rationing, and uncomfortable awareness of class boundaries.

Based on the 1984 film A Private Function, written by Alan Bennett, Betty Blue Eyes tells the story of Gilbert Chilvers (Haydn Oakley), a humble chiropodist in a typical Northern town, whose wife Joyce (Amy Booth-Steel) dreams of transcending their class, of ‘being somebody’. When Gilbert stumbles upon a plot hatched by the town’s upper-class inhabitants to rear an unregistered (and therefore illegal) pig, named Betty, to feed guests at a ‘very private’ banquet in honour the royal wedding, he also discovers a side of his character hitherto unknown and decides to steal the hog in question. Yet nobody expected the pig, or more specifically, the pig’s eyes to be so arrestingly blue.

Oakley is endearing as the timid Gilbert, the undeniable similarity to Bennett himself rendering him no less likeable. In a performance filled with laudable gusto, Oakley perfectly captures Gilbert’s transition from shyness to audacity, yet always maintains his defining humility. Booth-Steel is equally commendable; her portrayal of Joyce teeters ideally between irritating social pretentiousness and compelling familial integrity. The magnificent chemistry between both leads is distilled brilliantly in the show’s second number, ‘A Place On The Parade’, which they share.

Away from these two notable performances, however, Betty Blue Eyes offers very little in the way of convincing characters. Tobias Beer’s Mr Wormhold, a pedantic investigator from the Department of Food , is more Inspector Clouseau than intimidating government official; Kit Benjamin is regrettably one-dimensional as the self-important Doctor Swaby, his generic blustering amounting to little more than a caricature; and Sally Mates’ Mother is similarly unsophisticated, her lack of depth being thrown into sharp relief by the nuanced performances of Oakley and Booth-Steel. One notable exception is the eponymous porker, brought to life as a versatile, naturalistic and thoroughly entertaining puppet.

Musically, Betty Blue Eyes is distinctly hit-and-miss, the aforementioned duet ‘A Place On The Parade’ being a significant highlight of the first half with its heartfelt zest and soaring vocal line. The song after which the musical is named is another duet, a paean to Betty’s alluring peepers performed by Gilbert and Mr Allardyce (Matt Harrop); its catchy refrain and light, airy atmosphere ensure it falls into the ‘hit’ category. Other enjoyable numbers include ‘Nobody’, a defiant, chant-like anthem sung principally by Joyce, and ‘The Kind Of Man I Am’, a heart-rending solo of Gilbert’s. Despite these successes, many of the songs lack any observable punch and are entirely forgettable as a result, though they do have a certain post-war swagger.

In aesthetic terms, Betty Blue Eyes undeniably delivers. The elaborate, multi-layered set deserves mention, as does the polished choreography. Occasionally, the dance scenes lack a focal point, rendering them ever-so-slightly chaotic, but this rarely spoils their vibrancy. In truth though, Betty Blue Eyes is an inconsequential show. Aside from a few songs and the performances of Oakley and Booth-Steel, there is nothing of any serious weight. It is a fun and occasionally amusing musical, but one that rarely engages the audience.

2.5/3

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