Posted on 21 March 2011

The world-premiere run of Betty Blue Eyes, a new musical based on the British film comedy "A Private Function" that was originally scripted by Alan Bennett, began at the West End's Novello Theatre on 19th March prior to the official opening on 13th April.  Betty Blue Eyes is Cameron Mackintosh's first new musical production in over 10 years.

Featuring a score by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (currently represented on Broadway by their additional songs for Mary Poppins), it is produced by Cameron Mackintosh, directed by Richard Eyre and choreographed by Stephen Mear, all of whom also served duty as co-producer, director and co-choreographer, respectively, on Mary Poppins.

"A Private Function," scripted by Bennett, centered around Betty, an adorable pig, who is being illegally reared to ensure the local dignitaries can celebrate the Royal Wedding with a lavish banquet while the local population make do with spam. Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman have now adapted and expanded this story for the stage. And while Britain is looking forward to another impending Royal Wedding for a future monarch, with Prince William about to marry Kate Middleton, this show revolves around the earlier Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

According to press materials, belts are being tightened and the country's long-suffering citizens are being told by the government that there will be fair shares for all in return for surviving Austerity Britain. Meanwhile, local officials feather their own nests by taking far more than their own fair share. It is of course 1947 and having won the war Britain seems to have lost the peace and the country is staggering under the burden of acute rationing, unemployment, and the coldest winter for decades. The only bright spark on the horizon is the impending Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

In a press statement, Mackintosh commented, "Even though my recent productions of Oliver!, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins and the new Les Miz have all had great success, Betty Blue Eyes is my first original musical in over 10 years. As a long time admirer of Alan Bennett's wickedly funny screenplay for the film 'A Private Function,' I immediately fell in love with this infectious and delicious musical treatment which has expanded on the original. It is an utterly British and suitably crackers musical and yet surprisingly was the idea of two American writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman — but you'd never know it! As we all face Austerity Britain and a Royal Wedding, Betty Blue Eyes proves that British pluck will make sure good times are just around the corner."

"The score was written by friends of mine, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who I've known for 25 years and [who,] of course, did all the terrific new songs for Mary Poppins," he told earlier this year. "But actually, the book was written by two Americans [Cowen and Lipman], and it was their idea. … I read it and I thought it was the most original piece I had read in a long, long time. I mean, I knew they were working on it, because the moment I heard it was a musical version of 'A Private Function' — a film I loved, by Alan Bennett, which was very, very funny and off-the-wall — I was intrigued and thought, 'This sounds like a really good adult thing for them to be doing. [There's] something wonderfully English about it but quirky.' …So I encouraged them to finish it, but I was really amazed how well the two writers have wonderfully taken the Bennett screenplay and expanded it — and the songs are the best that George or Anthony have ever written."

Is it a delicious, genuine musical comedy free of the so-serious gloom (and hope) of his dramatic musical epics?

"It is delicious," Mackintosh said, "but what I didn't know when I agreed to do it was how the timing [would be so auspicious]. … Who would have thought that so many of the themes that Bennett was writing about, which [include] fair shares for all, belt-tightening, a Royal Wedding, the worst winter in decades — all of it would come to roost just as we open. The point of view of the period that the story was set in is so apposite to what our country is — and, I think, many countries are — going through now."

The timing of the royal wedding of Queen Elizabeth II's grandson, Prince William, which takes place two weeks after the musical's opening on the West End, couldn't be better. "Of course, I had nothing to do with, despite people trying to give me credit," Mackintosh said with a laugh. "In the end, it's going to be a good show, and if it's a good show, I think our timing will seem impeccable."

The cast of 20 is relatively intimate given Mackintosh's history with such period epics as Miss Saigon and Les Miz.

"It is," the producer agreed. "This is a big intimate show."

The cast is led by Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith. Lancashire, who plays Joyce, is best known for her TV roles as Raquel in "Coronation Street" as well as her appearances in "Clocking Off," "Cherished," "Five Daughters," "Murder Most Horrid" and "The Small Things," all for the BBC, and "Where the Heart Is," "Rose and Maloney," "Seeing Red" and "The Cry" for ITV. She was most recently seen in the West End as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls.

Shearsmith, who plays Gilbert, co-wrote and starred as part of The League of Gentlemen comedy troupe on TV, film and stage. He is also co-writer and star of the BBC’s "Psychoville." He was last seen on the West End stage in Ghost Stories (Duke of York's) and has previously also appeared as Leo Bloom in The Producers and Art.

Other features roles include David Bamber as Swaby.  David Bamber has featured in “The King’s Speech” and he recently played Adolph Hitler in the film “Valkyrie”.  His many stage credits include ‘Guy’ in “My Night With Reg” for which he won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor.  Jack Edwards as Allardyce most recently seen in “Sweet Charity” at the Haymarket Theatre. His other West End theatre credits include ‘Nicely-Nicely Johnson’ in “Guys and Dolls” at the Piccadilly Theatre., Ann Emery as Mother Dear.  Ann Emery is currently the West End’s longest running leading lady.  Now in her ninth decade she has just completed 5 ½ years as the original ‘Grandma’ in Stephen Daldry’s “Billy Elliot”.  In her fabulous career, she has also appeared at the National Theatre and featured in many West End shows as diverse as “My Fair Lady” and the original production of “Cats”.  Mark Meadows as Lockwood who recently appeared in “Mary Poppins”. His other theatre credits include “The Three Musketeers”, “High Society” and “White Christmas”and Adrian Scarborough (who recently won the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Performance by an Actor his appearance in last year's After the Dance at the National) as Wormold and can also currently be seen in the critically acclaimed film “The King’s Speech”.

Buy Betty Blue Eyes tickets online now.

[posted by Louise, 21/03/2011]