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East of England
posted/updated: 05 May 2017 -
Betty Blue Eyes
Music by George StilesLyrics by Anthony DreweBook by Ron Cowen and Daniel LipmanBased on 'A Private Function' byAlan Bennett and Malcolm Mowbray
society/company: Leigh Operatic & Dramatic Society (LODS) (directory)
performance date: 04 May 2017
venue: Palace Theatre, Westcliff-on-sea, Essex, SS0 9LA
reviewer/s: Michael Gray (Sardines review)

On the day the Palace announce the Duke of Edinburgh's retirement from public life, LODS take us back 70 years to the Royal Wedding that began it all.

Based on the Alan Bennett film A Private Function, it's the tale of meat rationing, dodgy dealing and a clandestine pig, named Betty after the young Princess, which is to be slaughtered for a pork dinner in honour of the happy couple.

It's a charming production, directed with a playful sense of period by Sallie Warrington, who has a fine company at her disposal here.

Led by Michael James as a likeable chiropodist, his gentle personality radiating to all corners of the auditorium – he's an accomplished song and dance man, too. His Lady Macbeth of a wife, all ruthless ambition [the Scottish play is referenced quite frequently] is stunningly done by Joanne Halliday, superbly selling her big numbers: the Primrose Ballroom sequence, for instance, beautifully choreographed, with a lovely vocal trio supporting Halliday's assured voice.

Plenty of memorable character work for the rest of the cast to get their teeth into: Helen Sharpe relishes every batty moment as Mother Dear, Andy Stone is the stammering pig-fancier Allardyce [two more LODS regulars, Simon Sharpe and Peter Brown, are his corrupt fellow councillors] and Andrew Seal, in leather trench-coat and tooth-brush moustache, brings a touch of melodrama to the villain of the piece, Wormold from the Ministry. A special mention for the porcine star of the show, the sow herself. She's an endearing puppet, convincingly manipulated by her land-girl handler, Sara Hickling.

It's a strong ensemble show, with beautifully staged production numbers – the Nobody sequence, with showgirls sporting top hats, tails and canes, Another Little Victory with union flags, the hilarious extended Pig, No Pig scene, or the more thoughtful Magic Fingers, with three housewives suffering the aftermath of war. The dénouement is done with another sustained sequence, the Finale Ultimo where everyone confesses their part in the plot.

The setting [Paul Ward and Kevin Ward] is brilliantly simple: a toy-town cut-out Shepardsford, with the Chilvers' parlour folding out. Smoke from the chimneys, too. The vet's motor-car, ingeniously suggested in the tableau that ends Act One, becomes a lovely little model for the pig-napping that starts the second half.

The music – by George Stiles, to lyrics by Anthony Drewe – is catchy without being memorable [Stiles is no Sondheim]; but it's well served here by a first-rate pit band, conducted by Stuart Woolner. The Musical Director is Rachael Plunkett.

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