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Warm, witty, rude and the best song ever about verrucas Betty Blue Eyes The Musical

The Times
April 14, 2011

Warm, witty, rude and the best song ever about verrucas


By Libby Purves for The Times

Not for nothing is KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON currently plastered on every mouse-mat. The 1940s cheer us up no end: no sooner have we warmed to the camaraderie of 1941 in Flare Path than we get this romping musical version of 1947: in which two American writers, Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, adapt Alan Bennett’s tale of snobbery, skulduggery and illegal pig-raising for “A Private Function” to mark the wedding of Princess Elizabeth. From this unlikely pedigree, with George Stiles’s music and Anthony Drewe’s lyrics, a new smash musical is born: witty, rude, lovable, warm, dramatic, hilarious.

It beautifully evokes that Bennett North, preoccupied with good dinners and bad feet. It contains Reece Shearsmith singing the best song ever written about verrucas, a duet performed with clothespegs on the nose, a Lindy-hop in an air raid, Sarah Lancashire tearing off her pinny for a Ginger Rogers routine, and a chorus of town councillors in a pub urinal. There’s an animatronic pig, and a dream sequence involving Prince Philip doing a soft-shoe shuffle with his hands behind his back. Sometimes you can’t stop laughing.

The gods rain blessings on those who write from the heart.

Nobody could have foreseen that this would launch into an “austerity Britain” with another royal wedding looming. And even a government claiming we’re all in it together: the opening “fair shares for all of everything” and the disgruntled ladies’ queue for meat met happy giggles of recognition. Joy also greets the jobsworth meat inspector, Adrian Scarborough as evil Mr Wormold, booming “Keep illegal pork / From each immoral fork!” before soaring off into an artistic fantasy with his green paint, as a side of pork signed PIGASSO crosses the stage. But only briefly: one pleasure of Richard Eyre’s direction is that for all the dotty glee of it, the show is never allowed to milk, drag or bore.

The book takes merry liberties with Bennett’s story, yet his themes ring through: social pathos and frustrated dreams. Sarah Lancashire as the chiropodist’s wife combines real feeling with adept comedy, and truly Bennettian is the understated, resigned affection of a couple who long for roast pork but know their life is spam. When Gilbert stands forlorn in sock suspenders, unwilling to dispatch the pig, he replies to his wife’s “what kind of man are you?” with a line Bennett might write had he taken to lyrics: “The kind who would like children, but doesn’t press the point/ The kind who lets you make decisions and agrees they’re joint”. Ann Emery has a bravura turn as the mother-in-law who addresses them with “I know you’re a thudding disappointment and your husband’s a cretin, but . . .”

I see I have hardly mentioned the pig. It’s a great pig. And I am happy to relate that despite the usual desperate first-night deadline scuttle, two of us critics remained riveted by the escape door long enough to hear it sing in the final curtain call . In the voice of Kylie Minogue. No expense spared, by gum! A slap-up feast from Sir Richard Eyre and Sir Cameron Mackintosh, bringing home the bacon again.

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