Betty Blue Eyes

Date 11th December 2015
Society University of Manchester Musical Theatre Society
Venue Manchester University Students Union
Type of Production Musical
Director Jack Hawkins
Musical Director Michael Phillips
Choreographer Sophie Handley

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Author: Kevin Proctor

“There’s a pig in the ‘ouse” and she goes by the name of ‘Betty Blue Eyes’.

This is a wonderful northern tale featuring Joyce, Gilbert and their stolen, unlicensed pig Betty who is reared for the celebratory banquet of the Royal Wedding of Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The production takes place in 1947 post-war Britain, the locals are struggling with the frequent ration cuts and are barely making ends meet. The story follows Joyce Chilvers - who was played with gutsy stamina and the perfect balance of humour and pathos by Lani Calvert - and her loveable, bumbling husband Gilbert – played splendidly sincere by Hugh Beckwith - as they try to become somebodies in town and earn their place at the front of the ration queue. As the story unravels it turns out Joyce and Gilbert’s future is as bright as Betty’s blue eyes. The couple aren’t alone in their endeavours, they live with the hilarious Mother Dear who eats (pretty much) everything and never leaves a scrap for anyone else.

The cast consists of an all dancing, all singing, highly talented troupe of performers. There is comedy aplenty and each character is as enjoyable as the last. Some of the humour could be considered overly pantomime for this piece; as hilarious as she was, Georgia Affonso was out on a limb playing up the humour perhaps too much which threw some of her scenes off balance. The mean meat inspector Mr Wormold could have almost become panto-villainous as the one man in town to take his job far too seriously but Joe Dickens keeps him believably sinister whilst given the opportunity for the inner-villain to rear its ugly head during the nightmare sequence ‘Painting By Heart’.

The production had been seamlessly scaled down with an imaginative use of furniture (particularly the blackboard) to aid the telling of the story in the restricted space of the Council Chambers by the shows Director Jack Hawkins – the intimate and stripped back production exposes the warm heart of the book and translates this quaint piece of theatre beautifully in the cosy setting.

Sam Keeler delights as the lovable Mr Allardyce - his fondness and attachment to the pig was told through the shows title number (sung with Hugh as Gilbert) which was utterly sweet and twee. Oliver Meynard continues to impress with each production I see, this time offering a very enjoyable portrayal as the pompous Dr Swaby.

Finally, let us not forget the star of the show; Betty - a delightful hand-controlled puppet manoeuvred with precision and care by Sarah Teale, a marvellous puppet design whose movements are executed so life-like offering plenty of personality and several “ahhh’s” from the audience too. I couldn’t find (in the programme) where this puppet had come from but can only imagine it working in a space as intimate as this which leads me to believe it has been made in house for this production? – if so, what a tremendous skill set UMMTS have access to, if only there were other musicals which require puppet making skills (nudge, wink).  

The show isn’t without its faults, the main bugbear for me was the mass of missed sound ques which interfered with the easy flow of presentation. On a more positive note, more attention had been given to the lighting design which is no mean feat when working with an audience seated (almost) in the round, we had very few black spot areas and some interesting creativity with the LX design.

The orchestra was under the baton of Michael Phillips who, for the most part, sounded excellent but we did get one or two squint moments with some squeaks and squeals (and no they weren’t coming from Betty!) in some unfortunate parts of the score. But what a gorgeous score it is! ‘Betty’ had me humming her songs well into the next day and beyond.

This was a fun, high energy and immensely enjoyable production that puts an original twist on an era that has been recreated many times before. The comedy and absurdness of the story against the backdrop of the bleak aftermath of the war is a welcome ray of sunshine in an otherwise sad war story. Add Sophie Handley's delightful choreography to Stiles and Drewe's perky swing songs and you’ve got a hearty show which the members of UMMTS certainly did justice.