Pig In A Poke: Betty Blue Eyes @TheUnionTheatre

Twelve years after its West End premiere, Betty Blue Eyes seems topical. Back then, the parallels were only about a Royal Wedding, with William and Kate's marriage filling the headlines. Now a musical about conniving members of the establishment, illegal meat trades and shortages of decent food could be set in the present day. Even the Horse meat scandal would follow a few years after its closure. Now in a smaller-scale version at the Union Theatre, it's still funny and silly. And the illegal pigsty is right up close and under your nose in the smaller space of the Union Theatre

Based on the Alan Bennet movie A Private Function, the story is set just after the Second World War when rationing and shortages meant times were tough. Gilbert and Joyce Chilvers (Sam Kipling and Amelia Atherton) move to a small Yorkshire Town and struggle to make ends meet and gain acceptance. Gilbert has to make do as a chiropodist making house calls to lonely housewives (in 1947, they were all women). Joyce supplements their income with piano lessons for the town's spoiled children. The chance to get an invitation to a private function to celebrate the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip seems like their chance of acceptance. The only problem is that the centrepiece of the private function will be an unlicensed roast pig. And a meat inspector is going about the town checking on all the butchers. And one of the conspirators has taken a shine to the pig. 

It's the first big production staged by The Union Theatre since the Pandemic, and the cast put a lot of energy and effort into the show. The smaller stage gives a chance to appreciate the words and music more than on the West End, and there are some fine performances, including by Kipling and Atherton in the leads. The small orchestra under the music direction of Aaron Clingham sounds rich and balances a big sound with the unamplified voices of the cast. 

It's a silly farce, heightened further by the over-the-top music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. There are endless jokes about feet and pigs, so many that you can miss them from laughing. Adapted by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman (who would be known for their television producing such as Queer As Folk and Sisters), it's an unusual musical comedy that feels British yet is also landing sly and clever digs at all things British. Perhaps it was ahead of its time with its deft criticism of the British class system, rules and rulebreakers. There's even a song about making Britain great again. The digs land well this time around. 

And then there's the pig. A well-loved puppetry concoction with blue eyes that farts a lot. Who could resist that? Directed by Sasha Regan, Betty Blue Eyes is at the Union Theatre until 22 April.


Photos by Michaela Walshe

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