Betty eyes up a golden theatrical opportunity
- Credit: Archant
Britain at the end of the Second World War was a land exhausted by conflict. Physically it was scarred by bomb damage but socially it was also scarred by a profound change in the structure of society.
The old order was changing. Nothing would be the same again.
There was a new socialist government in Westminster, the NHS and the welfare state were being born and women who had played such a vital role by diving into war work were understandably reluctant to return home to do the dishes.
Also, Britain was also a lot less deferential to our traditional betters. Two world wars in 25 years had robbed the aristocracy and the old boys’ network of their authority. Also with so many casualties, there was a genuine desire to create a new and much more equitable society.
But, with human nature being what it is, with changes in society came a rise in social climbing. Now that the lord of the manor was no longer automatically chairman of the town council or head magistrate a new pecking order had to be established and these were largely drawn from the professional and business classes.
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Doctors, solicitors, bank managers and shop-owners became society’s new elite.
This is the world that forms the backdrop to Betty Blue Eyes, a critically acclaimed West End musical which was premiered in 2011 but came off far too soon. It garnered a wealth of four star reviews from all the leading theatre critics as well as headlines like This Porker Is A Corker. It swiftly developed a loyal British audience but failed to capture the imaginations of foreign tourists which the West End relies on to sustain a long run.
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It’s a very British musical, in-so-much it reflects a post-war scene which wouldn’t be familiar to American tourists. It was austerity Britain 1947, a time when rationing was more severe than it was during the war years. It was the era of the Ealing film Passport To Pimlico when goods were bought by coupons rather than with currency.
Meat was in especially short supply. Betty Blue Eyes was based on Michael Palin’s hit film A Private Function, scripted by Alan Bennett and co-starred Maggie Smith. Set against the civic celebrations to commemorate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Phillip, the film and the musical follow the lives of chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers and his social climbing wife Joyce.
Only the town’s elite are being invited to a civic reception to celebrate the Royal wedding and when Gilbert stumbles across an illegal pig (Betty) being bred to feed the town’s dignitaries, Joyce sees an opportunity for social advancement.
It’s a musical with a lot of heart and deals with real people and creates a picture of a real community. This is what attracted Colchester Mercury director Daniel Buckroyd who was looking to stage a modern musical.
Speaking during a break in rehearsals, he said: “After the Hired Man we were looking for another great, recent British musical that we thought had been slightly neglected – something that was worthy of a revival – a musical that we felt we could breathe new life into.”
Daniel said that he hadn’t seen the show in London but knew it had a wonderful reputation.
“Initially we were looking a bit further back than Betty Blue Eyes but someone sent me the CD of the show. I had a listen and loved it. Read the script and loved it even more but my one concern was that it was too big and remote but we were talking to a producer, who was trying to get The Hired Man into the West End, and he said: ‘if you want to do it leave it with me and I’ll put in a word’. Two days later I found myself talking to Cameron Mackintosh.”
Talking to the producer of the West End show revealed to Daniel that his fears that Betty Blue Eyes was too big and complicated were ill-founded. It quickly became clear that the show worked best when it focused itself on ordinary people.
“What I loved about it was that it was a show about a small regional town and the personalities involved in the local community. It’s the very antithesis of the metropolitan experience. I felt very strongly that the scale and feel of this and the focus of the story would sit very well in Colchester but also sit very well in a whole heap of regional towns.
“I was also aware that the show really resonated with audiences. Everyone who saw the show loved it and couldn’t understand when it was taken out of the West End as quickly as it was. I had a long talk with Cameron and he said there was a feeling that they hadn’t got the marketing right. Betty Blue Eyes is a very British musical about a very British experience and the good thing about a regional tour is that we are not reliant on that tourist spend.”
Daniel’s approach to the show is that the look and production design should reflect the make-do-and- mend nature of the era. But this doesn’t prevent it being a large-scale show for a regional theatre to mount.
“We conceived the show with some doubling (of parts) but as we created co-production partnerships with Salisbury, Leeds and Liverpool it means we could really go to town – so we have a company of 17 actors and four musicians and they will just raise the roof. We’ll be able to create a massive sound and it will also mean that the show will be able to hold its own when it’s on stage in a bigger theatre like the Norwich Theatre Royal.”
He’s also pleased that they are getting a new version of the show to make their own.
The show’s composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have revisited the script and made changes which incorporate lessons learned from the London run.
“We have been working with George and Anthony because they have been wanting to do a revision to the show. The reality of getting any new musical on is that, during a painful tech rehearsal, things get changed and cut for a whole range of reasons. So the show you end up putting on stage can bear the scar tissue of any number of last-minute changes and this is what happened to Betty Blue Eyes.
“Our version is not massively different but we have got some good cuts, some good changes, it’s a little bit tighter, more streamlined and it flows very well.”
Daniel is very clear that the star of the show is the show itself and not a special-effect. He believes that the animatronic pig which captured the attention of the press during the West End previews may have ended up distracting attention away from the heart-warming, human heart of the show.
“Cameron offered us the West End pig but I politely declined the offer. We are going down a different route. We didn’t go with the West End pig for two reasons. One that it weighs three-quarters-of-a-ton and the other reason is that the language of the show needs to reflect a make-do-and- mend mentality.
“All the visual decisions about the show come back to one question: ‘How realistic do you make the pig?’ We are going with a puppet. There was a lovely, small drama school production of the show and they used a puppet. Cameron went to see it and having spent three-quarters of a million on this animatronic pig, he came out of this production, which had spent £1,000 on their pig, and said: ‘This is the way we should have done it’.
“So we are taking a leaf out of their book and we are going with this gloriously British low-tech version of the pig. It’s about creating a sense of atmosphere. It conjures up the spirit of the age. It’s about drawing the audience in to the charm and grime of austerity Britain in 1947 and the politics and the social climbing.
“I think it is a very rich social experience which grows out of a small town mentality.”
Daniel is lacing his cast and crew with a lot of experienced names. Haydn Oakley, who has West End credits in Wicked and Book of Mormon, is playing the hapless Gilbert while the National Theatre’s Amy Booth-Steel is his social-climbing wife Joyce.
The show’s choreographer is the Olivier-nominated Andrew Wright who has worked on Singing In The Rain and the recent production of Barnum at Chichester.
Haydn said that the show has a real ensemble feel and that is helping create a real sense of period and a sense of community. “I think the show works better on a smaller, more intimate level. Although it’s called Betty Blue Eyes, it’s really about Joyce and Gilbert and their marriage. The scenes between them in house, and with mother, are quite intimate and touching.”
The cast have worked closely with Daniel to make all the characters appear to be real people rather than ciphers who are just there to advance the plot.
“It’s quite a fine line to show that Joyce isn’t too demanding and Gilbert isn’t too wet. I think Stiles and Drewe did a good job in turning them into three-dimensional characters. They behave like real people. For Gilbert having that shop is so that he can help people, helping making people’s life better. Whereas for Joyce having a shop on the parade is a status symbol.
“It’s about Gilbert and Joyce being in a relationship and they are at that stage where things aren’t quite as rosy as they were when they first got together and they are struggling to reignite those fires. I think everyone has an understanding of those issues at some level.”
Betty Blue Eyes runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester from March 14 to April 5, before heading off on a national tour which includes the New Wolsey, Ipswich, April 15-19 and the Theatre Royal, Norwich May 27-31.