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posted/updated: 02 Jun 2016 -
Betty Blue Eyes
Based on the Alan Bennett film, “A Private Function”, and songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
society/company: Putney Light Opera Society (PLOS) (directory)
performance date: 01 Jun 2016
venue: Putney Arts Theatre
reviewer/s: Chris Abbott (Sardines review)

Photo: Paul Aylin Photography

It’s always good to see an amateur premiere of a show that may go on to be a popular choice for other societies, and Putney Light Operatic Society proved more than equal to the task with their impressive production of Betty Blue Eyes at Putney Arts Theatre.

Director Damian Sandys made good use of the different levels of the set and ensured that the pace was kept up in this rather lengthy show, well supported by musical director Steven Geraghty and his offstage band (uncredited in the programme).

Most impressive of all in this production was the choreography by Della Bhujoo, with dances that were not only wholly suited to the action but also fitted well on her cast, many of them talented dancers. Numbers like Nobody and ensemble pieces like Fair Shares for All were lifted onto a different plane by the quality of the staging.

This show provides a number of cameo roles for ensemble members and the cast of 26 took full advantage of this, all of them managing to get on and off this relatively small stage with commendable efficiency.

The 2014 national tour of Betty Blue Eyes had a cast of 16 so it is also possible to do this piece with a smaller group, but on this occasion it was good to see the stage so full. The 2014 tour was also the first production after the West End original with its automated and realistic animatronic pig. For the tour, an excellent puppet pig was created, operated by one person and this was very successful. PLOS opted for a rather larger pig, using the one created for a recent Arts Educational production and which requires three operators. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the operators, I did think this was less successful than a smaller pig with a more characterful face and one operator.

As a puppeteer, I would also suggest that stillness can be as effective as jiggling, and puppeteers need to act through their puppet, always looking at it rather than at the other performers. However, these are issues of detail, and Betty (and her operators) played her role more than adequately.

The cast of this production included a number of familiar faces from other societies in the area, with no weak performances. The trio singing Magic Fingers, one of the best numbers in the show, were particularly strong and worked well with the always reliable and convincing Gilbert from Freddy Bowen. As many of the original reviewers noted, this part is unique in musical theatre in offering the opportunity to sing a song about verrucas.

Alex Johnson provided a suitably villainous Inspector Wormald, a challenging part to sing, although it would have been good if his paintbrush had some green paint on it to actually mark the meat he condemns. Alison Walters threw everything at the part of Mother Dear, a good character role, and was appropriately larger than life at all times.

Particularly impressive among the smaller roles were Ben Waterhouse and Jack Beedle as a pair of butchers and much more besides – such reliable performers are the bedrock of a successful group. Performance of the night, however, was that of Kate Chesworth as Joyce Chilvers, on stage for most of the evening and singing, dancing and acting up a storm – and with a nifty quick-change too.

On the first night, at least, there were some technical difficulties, particularly with the sound balance. The songs in this show have clever lyrics that need to be heard, but too often the band overpowered the singers. The lighting, too, seemed a little unbalanced, with large unlit areas downstage leading to the front row of the ensemble appearing in silhouette. This appeared to improve in the second act however, apart from one stray moving light which shone directly at the audience during one scene.

The well-designed set by Gavin Murphy provided different playing levels, well-used windows and appropriate entrances and exits. The rather smudgy over-painting of the doors however, presumably to conjure an atmosphere of post-war gloom, did not seem so successful. It might have been better to have followed the previous productions and have a bright and cheerful set and let lighting conjure the necessary atmosphere.

Costumes were mostly excellent and in period, especially for the women, but the hipster beards and lack of short back and sides among the men seemed a little incongruous.

Betty made a welcome return for the finale after her narrow escape, but didn’t, as in the West End production, sing at that point using Kylie Minogue’s voice. Perhaps amateur companies could begin a tradition of local celebrities taking on this role, as I am sure Betty Blue Eyes will be the choice of many societies in the years to come. It will be quite a challenge, however, for them to match this PLOS production for commitment, expertise and entertainment value.

Photo: Paul Aylin Photography

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