Review: Betty Blue Eyes, Mercury Theatre

“Time that the whole town was stirred up”

At a time when West End shows are closing left right and centre, this touring version of Betty Blue Eyes serves as a timely reminder that that isn’t always the end. Itself a victim of a curtailed run at the Novello back in 2011, this production emerges as a model of collaboration with 4 regional powerhouses co-producing – Mercury Theatre Colchester, Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, Salisbury Playhouse and West Yorkshire Playhouse – a UK tour which currently stretches into August. 

Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman’s book adapts Alan Bennett and Malcom Mowbray’s witty story from the film A Private Function – a northern town’s determination to celebrate the Princess Elizabeth’s wedding is kyboshed by the unrelenting yoke of post-war austerity and rationing, though chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers and his social climbing wife Joyce have other plans. And the beautifully constructed music and lyrics are provided by British musical theatre stalwarts Stiles & Drewe.

It remains a delightful show. I loved it both times I saw it (and not just because Liza Minnelli stood on my foot at one of them) and so I would be hard pressed to tell you why it didn’t click enough with audiences. And perhaps reflecting this, Daniel Buckroyd’s production, with its hints of actor-musicianship doesn’t feel noticeably different – programme notes talk of nips and edits rather than wholesale change with one song ‘Painting by Heart’ rejigged and retitled ‘Upholding the Law’. 

Where it does feel naturally different is in the relationship between the performers. Haydn Oakley’s Bennett-styled Gilbert is a nerdishly dreamy delight and connects beautifully with Amy Booth-Steel’s Joyce, her innate warmth making their marriage a little less fraught (especially compared to Sarah Lancashire’s hauteur) but much more adorable. And Sally Mates as a crankier Mother Dear, is a little more Last of the Summer Wine than Ann Emery ever was, a choice that really works. 

And supported by a hard-working ensemble who joyously perform Andrew Wright’s expressive and imaginative choreography, occasionally support Richard Reeday’s excellent band with instruments of their own, and bring the various brightly-drawn minor characters to vibrant life, Matt Harrop’s besotted Allardyce and Ricky Butt’s every move standing out for me. And Rachel Knowles, Kate Robson-Stuart and Jenni Bowden blend gorgeously in a heart-rending version of ‘Magic Fingers’, whose combination of driving melody, rich harmonies and lyrical genius perfectly reflect the make-do attitude of post-war Britain to create one of my favourite musical moments ever.

So a great way to revisit a much-loved piece of theatre, and one which ought to win it a great deal more fans. Sarah Wright’s puppet work, manipulated deftly by Lauren Logan, is executed well (high praise, from a puppet-phobe like me), Sara Perks’ flexible design is strong, and the wry sense of humour about the whole escapade makes it a cheery, nostalgic delight to behold. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 5th April, then touring to Ipswich, Salisbury, Norwich, Leeds, Oxford and Liverpool

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