National Operatic & Dramatic Association London Region

Society : Encore Theatre Company
Production : Betty Blue Eyes
Date : 13th July 2017
Venue : Winston Churchill Theatre
Report by : Tony Austin

I am in the privileged position of having known about Betty Blues Eyes before its first production and, although details were embargoed during the preparation and rehearsal period, being aware that changes were taking place in its structure and of the sang-froid of the professionals involved in coping with them (the boss of the scenic construction firm finding on delivery of a mock cinema organ designed to rise out of the orchestra pit that it had been cut from the show remarked that they often produced such expensive custom-made land-fill). Being there for the final dress rehearsal before the first preview and again on the Press Night to witness other changes made (Wormhold’s big number drastically shortened remains with me) and seeing it again later in the run all made it one of my firm favourites, so I was delighted to see it on the amateur circuit earlier this year and then to find it my own London District 8.

With the show adapted from the film A Private Function which had multiple settings, the scenery was a challenge even in the West End, so my initial plaudit goes to Nick Tafe in his first design for the stage which made light of the difficulties with three trucks, turning independently each with four practical sides which between them provided all the necessary shop-fronts, doorways, plain walls and, with a couple of concealed wings folded out, the farmyard and Betty’s sty, while a useful staircase stage right had multiple uses as did the bar in the King and Crown Pub, and well chosen furniture (some from Argosy Players) and a piano appeared and disappeared swiftly to compliment the setting as necessary. Congratulations too, to his helpers with the construction, Harry Robson (also the hugely busy and efficient Stage Manager with Susan Jeffery as his ASM), Peter Smith, Neil Robson and other Company Members and to their anonymous Stage Crew who with huge assistance at times from Cast Members moved the trucks and everything else speedily and accurately (as I gather the cast did in rehearsal – what a wonderful way of assuring instantaneous scene changes). Speed was further facilitated by intelligent lighting from TS Lighting, with good use of Spotlights operated by Peter Smith, David Yeung and Martin Wilcox, pooling characters at the end of scenes so the changes could start to happen behind them without distracting us, as well as providing spectacle and proscenium sparkle at all appropriate moments together with interesting colour changes, gobo patterns and starbursts. The combination with JPSL Technical Services Ltd’s Sound (working fine but for some initial echo and the odd too loud underscore) provided the most effective and shocking bomb blast in The Primrose Ballroom of any performance I have seen with a view of survivors starting to escape, the ensuing complete blackness (to the audience) well used, and the slow strobing lights gradually revealing the devastation and the few remaining bodies so there was no problem seeing Joyce among the debris and focussing on her and her Lionheart. Props co-ordinated by Vicky Young and including some from Argosy and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, were a huge undertaking, perhaps most of all for the eventual Private Function, where their “rightness” and the use made of them by the cast added greatly to the effect, while the array of colourful period costumes arranged by Mandy Gasson assisted by Sian Bowles-Bevan and Company Members (considerably aided by the Rickmansworth Players’ wardrobe hire department) delighted our eyes as did the shoes, while Joyce’s underdressing and redressing onstage and the Carroll’s Trio’s quick change from colour to shiny white were amazing.

The star of the show was, of course, Betty, sourced I believe by the same Nick Tafe who spotted that somewhere in the North of England a local society had a member with the skill to make and use an animatronic pig for the role, which would perform certain movements (not as many as the original pig in the West End, although that was represented by three separate “animals” – all now presumably in the protective custody of Sir Cameron Mackintosh – one to smile and accept ginger biscuits in her sty, one to be manhandled into the Chilvers household at the start of Act 2 and thereafter nearly be despatched and a third to be seen by the audience escaping from the cupboard on a semi-circular course into the loo). But what an improvement on the tour which I’m told had a three-person operated puppet pig and the previous London amateur productions using a puppet with a single operator who necessarily broke the magic. We saw that magic for ourselves and loved it, with young Oliver Tafe (also appearing as dancer and chorus member) imperceptibly controlling the movements sometimes from onstage.

Others credited as Dancers in the superb programme (by Mandy Gasson and Jacob Flynn) were Eleanor Faulkner, Emily Lewis, Rachel Murphy (also playing the role of Kitt), Chris Andrew North (also playing Arthur Cunliffe and Prince Phillip, nicely done, although the uniform hat he carried unfortunately prevented his trade-mark stance with both hands behind his back) and Christian Carnio (I think, though the programme shows no CV). Together they led the specialist dances with fine comedy entrances beautifully presented to enhance various numbers, and the wonderful dream sequence in Nobody, where apart from their own classy dancing they brilliantly managed the onstage transformation of Joyce into a nightclub chanteuse with glamorous split-skirt dress and diamonds and her elevation to the moving table-top, with the final reversal to the original costume seemingly in a flash as if by magic, as well as the wartime Jitterbug in the Ballroom, where they were occasionally joined by others in some innovative choreographic patterns, although I don’t know who did the special show-off solo with split jumps and spectacular floor work (to me rather like modern break dancing but perhaps such things were brought here in wartime by US soldiers). Combining as an Ensemble with Company Members for such numbers as The Riot and Ill Wind, they must also be credited with helping to achieve the spot-on precision of the unified movements which made them so effective, and the similar precision as the team of waiters (augmented by chorus members) for the Private Function with every plate and every napkin delivered perfectly together and triumphant smiles on their faces.

Compliments also to the Ensemble (including the Dancers) for the confident singing with accurate harmonies projected to us in character and in the mood of each particular number. Coming out of it or special singing spots, Billy Carroll’s Trio (Aisha McPherson, Katharina Stobbs and Cristina Duffy) produced wonderful war period close harmony to the manner born and looked superb in their slinky colourful glitter dresses, which miraculously turned white from the shock of the Air Raid. And Cristina and Katharina combined earlier with Mandy Gasson as the three sad housewives whose feet Gilbert looked after, once more harmonising perfectly in quite a different style about his Magic Fingers, to touch our hearts. Emma Jane Barnard as Mrs Metcalf then gave a different slant to that song with immediate lusty comedy and Aisha returned later as Mrs Tilbrook to lead Ill Wind with great attack and clarity as her straight-faced delivery (and that of the chorus) caused huge hilarity. Her lines as Princess Elizabeth were well done, although the letter reading from the stairs would have been easier with softer accompaniment. Other non-singing excursions included Tim Chalklen as Mr Metcalf the Butcher trying hard to plead his innocence but failing and condemned to outer darkness after his wife’s pram was shown to contain twin sucking pigs, returning briefly as the Hotel Manager (with Mandy again as his Assistant), Katharina again as Mrs Cunliffe, Alexander Lever as Reg Bowen, and Ben Lithgow-Smith even shorter lived as Butcher Barraclough but scoring high as Farmer Sutcliffe with a fine country accent, crafty manner and resonating bass notes adding harmony to A Private Function.

And now to the people cast with only one role each to play: Elaine Griffin as Mrs Allardyce making the most of her snobbery on every occasion and though forced by rationing to queue up with the rest accepting special treatment as her right, with her interjected objection to sharing Betty’s future life resonating through the banquet; Aisling Quinn as her daughter Veronica thoroughly enjoying portraying a really nasty spoiled brat, especially when out of sight of her mother she could be directly rude; Aneka Rai as Mrs Lockwood essential for the Private Function and the scene with the Councillors at dinner, though what they actually said got somewhat lost under the choreography and Joyce’s glamorous costume; Alexander Lever (who should only have had the one role of butcher Nuttall but took over that of Reg Bowen as well at short notice) very young and smart, making the  most of his position as the last butcher in town with weasel words and quite ready to slaughter Betty in the line of duty even when wearing Joyce’s floral housecoat: Kevin Quinn as gentle Sergeant Noble unwillingly forced by the arrival of Inspector Wormold to uphold the law, brilliantly funny as he single-handedly held back the ladies in The Riot (superbly set) and equally so with the Councillors as they completed their complaints about “modern” times with the spoof of an old Music Hall sketch; and Simon Beale as Wormold himself, overhearing their conversation from behind the door which we already knew as several different loos and registering the triumph that he now had the evidence he had been looking for since his arrival to Uphold the Law (accompanied, in a comedy inspiration, by gaily dancing policemen waving paint brushes) that there was to be mass flouting of the rationing regulations – only to be disappointed following the clearly acted and sung Confessions of the company. Then the three fine representatives of the town’s ruling classes, combining superbly in song and action (with some great Music Hall style): John Saxon Jones as Council Leader Dr Swaby exaggerating the character’s pomposity, self-righteousness and bullying behaviour just sufficiently to get the maximum humour; Mark Pim as Cllr Lockwood, originally apparently sympathetic to Gilbert’s request for A Place on the Parade but after Swaby’s bullying rather embarrassed at losing the “sym”; and Phil Gossan as Cllr Allardyce, whose understandable sympathy for animals rather than his family was well shown throughout and who communicated it to us so brilliantly when singing the title number.

Three more superb leading performances from the family with Sian Bowles-Bevan getting every comedy nuance as Mother Dear with great facial and body reactions whether stealing in the queues, confronting Veronica, freezing for ages with food half in her mouth, complaining that she was being starved (of which we saw no physical sign), and remarkably surviving her apparent “burial” under the crowd (another beautifully set effect), all topped by her misunderstanding of the conversation about killing the pig and pleading for her life. Pig No Pig was a triumph and her delivery of the double-paced verse was immaculate. And the combination of Laura Gilbert’s forceful and ambitious Joyce and Marc Kelly’s diffident but determined Gilbert worked believably on every level and their singing was amazing, with her show-stopping Nobody both as herself and as her dream star rivalled by the Primrose Ballroom as the hard sell among many other styles, while his versatility made as much of the gentle A Place on the Parade, as the joyous title number, the comedy of Pig No Pig and the confessional The Kind of Man I Am. Their relationship was shown immaculately throughout in dialogue and reactions and we were all pleased to know that sexual intercourse would be in order after their tender final scene.

The final trio to celebrate: MD Rob Dowton for the immaculate preparation and training of the singers and accompanying them with his ten-piece orchestra in the many varied styles required; Abigail  Bulfin for the choreography both for the dancers and the company, always showing them at their best whether the effect needed was comedic or otherwise with ingenious twists I’m sure I didn’t see in the West End; and Director Karen Bulfin, once again showing the complete understanding of the musical genre (underlain by hard work and determination) to bring the very best of entertainment to Ruislip.