The last few weeks have been hectic for Liverpool’s veterinary community – or the ones qualified to look after puppet animals at any rate. First there was The Lion King with its record-breaking reign at the Empire, then came Dead Dog in a Suitcase at the Everyman, which featured a cloth canine shot in the head. And now, following that dose of unhinged Brechtian psychedelia, we have possibly the trippiest show of the lot, as Betty Blue Eyes and its famous puppet pig enjoy some rampant snuffling at the Playhouse.
Pig-themed musicals are admittedly thin on the ground (no, Porky and Bess doesn’t count), but Betty Blue Eyes has a reputation as one the best. Based on Alan Bennett’s 1984 film A Private Function, it originally opened in the West End in 2011. Like the film, it is set deep in the heart of Bennett country, in a West Riding town crazed with hairline fractures that separate the strata of its sedimented middle class. The year is 1947 and hunger has the town in its grip. Rationing and austerity define every detail of existence, although the word is that there’s bacon out there somewhere…if you have the class clout to mastermind the fattening of an illicit prime porker behind firmly-closed barn doors.
In the middle of this raging class warfare – where battle is waged with barbed behind-the-back put-downs rather than AK-47s – we find local peripatetic chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers and his wife Joyce. Gilbert wants to open a surgery on the local parade of shops but higher forces – led by the town’s doctor, played with devilish delight by Kit Benjamin – deem him too common. For Gilbert, seemingly resigned forever to being a man to whom unwelcome things simply happen, this is just one of those things. For Joyce though, it’s an affront; in the face of such injustice, she resolves to hit back.
For those who know Bennett’s work, these themes are familiar territory. ‘Common’ used as a pejorative – accusing some folk of being it, while being desperate not to be thought of it yourself – is the seed from which so many of his characters have grown. But the Bennett to whom we are most accustomed exists in an elbow-patched Play-For-Today world, all small screen semi-smiles and melancholic observation. When watching Betty Blue Eyes, which is presented with all the flash and pizzazz of a conventional West End musical, this dislocation causes things to get truly lysergic. Yes, you really are watching lavish song and dance numbers based on his delicately-wrought material. And yes, that really is a pouting puppet pig delivering a comic turn fit for a panto.
Perhaps this mismatch between expectation and experience is one reason that Cameron Mackintosh’s original recipe didn’t set the West End barbeque alight. The critics salivated and basted it in rich, juicy praise, but the show couldn’t cover its costs and closed after only six months. Now we can sink our teeth into it once again as four major producing houses – including Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse – have joined forces to give us another taste.
It took a little time for me to enter its world as I initially felt that the quietly repressed characters were resisting translation into this more cartoonish expressive mode. There is something of the Sunday evening sitcom in its early exposition, and I feared that perhaps here was yet another bottle of that past-its-best Yorkshire summer wine.
But the songs are the meat of this show; not only are the routines polished and precise, they also deliver real insights into character and motivation. Amy Booth-Steel’s Joyce Chilvers, perhaps the strongest performance of the night, grows from aspiring social climber and apparent hen-pecker into a powerful and potent manipulator of those regarded as her betters. And chiropodist Gilbert, played by Haydn Oakley as a meek and mild Alan Bennett-alike wearing infinite shades of brown, is revealed, among other things, to be an unwitting source of sensual relief for the repressed female population of the town.
By the second half, with the plot preambles well out of the way, it becomes a musical that cuts loose from convention – in terms of subject matter at least. I’m no expert in the traditions of this popular art form, but farting and pissing have perhaps rarely been so well celebrated in song. And by the end, you can’t help but be swept up by the joy of it all. Put simply, and with its hinted commentary on today’s austerity Britain notwithstanding, it’s a great deal of very daft good fun. Its mark of triumph is that pomposity is set up to be pricked like a sausage, and we root for every underdog on the stage. And for every underpig too. Forget it was ever a film and you’re fine.
Having toured the four producing theatres (plus other venues) since March, this show – under Daniel Buckroyd’s tight direction – is now grilled to perfection. Singing, dancing, puppetry and stagecraft are superbly slick, with the whole ensemble delivering performances that live up to the musical’s best-in-show reputation. I was less convinced by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman’s book than I was by the songs themselves (music by George Stiles, lyrics by Anthony Drewe) but, as deliriously eccentric entertainment, Betty Blue Eyes deserves all the rosettes that come its way.
I don’t suppose those who specialised in corns and bunions were really at the foot of society in 1947, but within the middle class spectrum reflected here, Gilbert Chilvers represents everyone who was ever knocked back by their betters, but who may yet dare to rise again. For the meek and mild among us, Betty Blue Eyes is therefore something of a call to arms. Or rather, a call to feet.
Its irresistible originality is inspiring enough and we can only hope that, this time round, it gets the rumps-on-seats that it deserves. But the winning point about this show is that you get a little polite political rabble rousing too.
“Chiropodists of the world unite!” it seems to say.
“You have nothing to lose but your chilblains!”
Where: Liverpool Playhouse
Until: August 2, 2014