Review – Betty Blue Eyes – Novello Theater

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Almost two months after it opened, I realize it’s a little late to be getting on the Betty Blue Eyes bandwagon. The musical opened April 14th, leading to a rash(er) of porcine punnerage in the printed press, but failing to grab my attention as anything but the “musical about a pig.” I waffled as the online reviews – tweeters and bloggers – were a mix of sizzle and roast. The Whingers were apathetic, while Ought to be Clowns said it was destined for greatness. Who was I to believe? Was I more worried about not maximizing my experience by getting a too-cheap seat, or wasting my time? The deciding vote of yes was ultimately caused by a blend of a freebie copy of the soundtrack (my God, real songs! with lyrics!) and the rather disturbing news that a Saturday night show the first week of May was half empty, meaning the timing of its closing was likely to be sooner rather than later. My goodness; it’s one thing to skip a bad show, but what if this closed unexpectedly and I’d actually missed a work of genius? Thanks to the (now generous half price stall seats) ticket offers at the TKTS booth, I was able to make my mind up myself without busting the bank. And I already knew the music would be good.

So, let’s see. Betty Blue Eyes, for those of you who, like me, are unfamiliar with the movie A Private Function, is a musical about the people involved with raising a pig that’s going to be served as the main course of a dinner for the glitterati of a small village. It’s set in post-war “austerity Britain” (which I know only as a counter-setting for some of Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing). Though the song writing wasn’t genius, it was heads and shoulders above Love Story and most of the long-running, popular modern musicals. Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith, playing the married couple (Joyce and Gilbert) at the heart of the show, were competent and businesslike: very believably middle-aged people whose lives hadn’t really gone where they thought they would. They were however, completely upstaged, not by the animatronic pig, but by “grandma” – Ann Emery – whose comic turn in the “Pig! No Pig” scene jumped the farce shark and went into some kind of higher comedic plane of unreality.

And, well, the dancing was good, but then there were those two empty balconies staring at me, seemingly draining the energy and enthusiasm out of the performers, and I couldn’t help but wonder, what wasn’t happening here? Why was this charming, if imperfect show looking like it was doomed to close at the end of the summer if not earlier?

I think there are two issue the show can’t overcome. First, Joyce is just not a sympathetic lead. She’s nasty to her husband, she’s a social climber, she complains a lot. She’s not someone you really enjoy have taking center stage. Even though she has two numbers that should cause the audience to connect with her (“Nobody” and “Dance at the Primrose Ballroom”), I found it impossible to feel sorry for someone who was so concerned about what other people thought about her. Yeah, sure, life is disappointing, but why not just get on with it and enjoy what you have? She couldn’t do it and as a result she had become bitter. Maybe there was a comedy figure hiding in there, but … I never really cheered her on.

The second thing is, well, this is a play about a group of people who are fairly enthusiastic about killing an animal that we, the audience, DO empathize with. It’s no longer the days when most everyone could, at least, kill their own chickens. And, well, the scene where the set is flooded with red light and Betty starts to scream is just NOT something I’d be wanting to take the kids to. In fact, I’d have questions about going myself. It set a really creepy, horrifying tone that the comic ending could just not shake off. And I think, really, as people are walking out of the theater, this feeling of “my God, killing animals is just really very unpleasant and noisy” is going to stick a lot more than the memories of the very funny paper villain (the Meat Inspector).

Overall I think this was a good musical – great hummable songs, lots of funny scenes, good dance numbers, and a real celebration of a lot of the fun quirky things about English society that I think the summer crowds would enjoy. But it’s just not pulling in the punters. If you like classic musicals, you will probably enjoy Betty Blue Eyes, and I advise you not to be too cocky in waiting to book as half full houses on a Saturday night are something no show can endure for long.

(This review is for a show seen on Saturday, May 14th, 2011. According to Delfont Mackintosh it’s currently booking until January 28, 2012, but I wouldn’t wait that long if you’re at all interested.)

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3 Responses to “Review – Betty Blue Eyes – Novello Theater”

  1. Mike (theatreguy) Says:

    Good to read your review and I guess I agree with most of it. But I’m still not sure about why people are staying away. Your two reasons are only valid IF people know details of the show in advance, which most would not. I would also add (SPOILERS MAYBE…. ) that Joyce (Sarah Lancashire) does redeem herself in the end and is very amusing well before then. Reece Shearsmith is huggably endearing. And that shiversome pig ‘killing’ scene does have a happy outcome as all kids’ fairy-tales do. I left the show smiling daftly from ear to ear and have been humming Betty Blue Eyes ever since. Most of the reviews were great so why the empty seats? Perhaps the people who don’t want to see the show can tell us. I recommend everyone goes to find out for themselves, as you did, then perhaps the show will take off as it deserves to.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Just a note: I didn’t know anything about the show in advance, so I think that the problems I noted would be those that affected people who DIDN’T know all about the show. What do you think is affecting attendance?

  2. Mike (theatreguy) Says:

    Well, webcowgirl, I have theories –
    1. People are not interested in pigs;
    2. Lancashire fans don’t want her to be hoity toity;
    3. Shearsmith fans prefer him in League and Psychoville mode;
    4. Film fans still have too fond memories of Maggie Smith;
    5. Young theatregoers see this as entertainment only for their parents;
    6. It’s an ‘old fashioned = boring’ comedy musical; and
    7. The free CD given away by the Standard (which hooked me!) put off as many people as it attracted.
    Of course I disagree with all of this as I thoroughly enjoyed it and the audiences seem to have a great time, so will someone who does NOT want to spend time with Betty PLEASE let us know why.

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