Earlier this evening, Betty Blue Eyes played its final performance in the West End. It’s the first new musical Cameron Mackintosh has produced in a decade, it opened in April this year to very positive reviews, and it’s run to half-empty houses for six months and is closing at a loss.
I saw it in April on my one free night on a London trip that was mostly work – the night after it opened, in fact – and loved it, with a few reservations (I’m picky, I’m afraid – I nearly always have a few reservations). It’s an odd, intriguing subject for a musical – the source material is the Alan Bennett-Malcolm Mowbray film A Private Function, a sharp, forensically cold comedy set in austerity-era Yorkshire that follows a meek chiropodist named Gilbert Chilvers and his ferociously social-climbing wife Joyce as they steal and conceal a pig that has been secretly reared by local bigwigs to provide the main course for a dinner celebrating the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. I went, I admit, partly because I was curious to see whether that film could be adapted successfully into a musical – I love the film, and nothing about it screamed ‘potential musical’ – and came away mostly charmed and delighted by what I’d seen. It’s a good show – a really good show – and it deserved a longer run.
It’s not entirely surprising, however, that it hasn’t run longer. The film it’s based on is well-regarded but not a blockbuster on the level of a Ghost or a Legally Blonde – and anyway, the musical and the film do not share the same title. The songwriters, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, have had solid careers that encompass a few charming small-scale musicals and additional songs for the stage version of Mary Poppins, but they aren’t household names. The show’s two stars – Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith – are household names, more or less, but there are relatively few stars in this country whose name on a poster makes people pick up the phone and book theatre tickets. For that matter, the audiences that know Shearsmith from The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville on television are not, as a group, necessarily going to be first in the queue to see a stage musical, let alone a relatively old-fashioned musical comedy like this one. Alan Bennett‘s name on a poster does tend to make people book tickets, but Alan Bennett’s name wasn’t anywhere near the poster. The musical is warmer than the film, but it’s still, when you boil it down, a more or less unflinching social comedy of manners in which it’s hard to find any character who is completely loveable (while the show is warmer than the film, Lancashire’s Joyce is far more of a West Riding Lady Macbeth than Maggie Smith presented on screen in the same role, a comparison that the musical makes explicit midway through the second act). And, at the end of the day, it’s a sharp-but-charming old-fashioned musical comedy, top-price tickets were £65, and the economy is in the toilet. When they opened (to reviews that were far better than we remember, in London at least), Mackintosh’s productions of The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon were events, must-see attractions that were sold out months in advance. Of course, in the late 1980s, people still had disposable income. Betty Blue Eyes got equally good reviews, but never gained that kind of traction at the box office.
With immaculate timing, the cast recording of Betty Blue Eyes became available for download this week. It’s not out on CD until next month; the download version has a couple of additional tracks that will not be on the CD – “Since the War”, an Act Two number set in a gents’ toilet and led by Dr. Swaby, who is the man who has thwarted most of Joyce’s social ambitions, and the full-length version of an Act One number called “Magic Fingers”, which is sung by three of Gilbert’s patients, and which is presented elsewhere on the cast recording without most of the dialogue that separates the verses. It’s a live recording, made in the theatre, and that brings positives and negatives. On the plus side, the performances have an immediacy and a spontaneity that isn’t always easy to capture in a recording studio. On the minus side, the sound quality is not quite as pristine as it would be on a studio recording. By and large, the show comes across very well; the highlight, probably, is Sarah Lancashire’s take-no-prisoners delivery of “Nobody”, Joyce’s determined paean to the art of social climbing, but the ensemble numbers also sound terrific. Lancashire, who has spent most of her career working in rather cosy television dramas, reveals a marvellous singing voice as well as comic timing that is apparently guided by laser (some of us already knew about her musical comedy skills – in the mid-1990s, she played Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors at the Oldham Coliseum, and she was brilliant), and it’s a joy, on this live recording, to hear the huge ovation she receives as she stops the show cold with “Nobody”; hopefully, this will not be her last musical. There are a few less-than-stellar individual songs here and there, and unfortunately Reece Shearsmith’s Gilbert is saddled with more than his fair share of them – my heart sank, when I saw the show, to see the programme list a song called “The Kind of Man I Am”, and the song, unfortunately, lives down to my low expectations, although Shearsmith does a lovely job of it; he more or less sold it in the theatre, but on a recording, when you can’t see the look on his face as he sings, it’s far less successful. And Adrian Scarborough, as the meat inspector Wormold, struggles manfully with a dazzlingly misconceived production number called “Painting by Heart” that should really have been put down in previews. Scarborough, again, is no singer, although he stays in tune, but he’s one of our best comic actors; he clearly had a great time wheeling out his best boo-hiss Villainous Acting, but he can’t quite manage to sell a song that, unfortunately, just isn’t good enough.
The rest of it is at least entertaining and often far better than that, and “Magic Fingers” is surprisingly deeply touching, particularly in the full-length version. The music does an excellent job of evoking the postwar setting, despite the rather thin orchestrations (nine players, not enough), the departures from the film’s plot are intelligently conceived (a jitterbug scene at a wartime dance where Gilbert and Joyce meet for the first time under dangerous circumstances, a different ending that shows Joyce achieving social prominence partly via her culinary skills with Spam) and work well, and it’s relatively easy to follow the plot simply by listening to the recording – no bad thing if you purchase the download, which does not come with liner notes or a synopsis. The title song – a love song to the titular pig – includes several marvellously groan-worthy pig-related rhymes, is ridiculously charming, and has a melody you’ll be humming for weeks. You don’t get to see the animatronic pig on the cast recording, but you can’t have everything. It’s far, far more entertaining music than sludge like the score of Ghost; it is, in fact, the most purely entertaining British cast recording I’ve heard in years.
And yet the show closed. The show got good reviews, and closed. That’s showbiz, folks.