The Union Theatre is an odd choice for this revival of Stiles and Drewe’s 2011 musical adaptation of Alan Bennett’s A Private Function. The cast of nineteen seems a similar size to what it would be in a West End theatre, yet the space is much smaller, and there are points where this does the show a disservice. The opening number, ‘Fair Shares for All’, is hamstrung by queues for meat which take up so much of the stage that there is no room for movement anywhere else, meaning that the surging score is contradicted by onstage stasis. Similarly, trying to cram an ensemble dance into a kitchen scene for ‘Nobody’ limits quite what they can do. In other places, however, choreographer Kasper Cornish does wonders in a small space; ‘Lionheart’ stands out here.

Credit: Michaela Walshe

Despite the odd mismatch of space to show, it’s difficult not to smile from beginning to end. Betty Blue-Eyes is one of Stiles and Drewe’s finest works, the subject matter matching their comic, song-based sensibility, and the wry bittersweetness of Ron Cowne and Daniel Lipman’s book preventing it from ever feeling twee or trivial. Indeed, songs like ‘Magic Fingers’ show great versatility in a largely comic score, creating really moving moments that also showcase the great talent on show in the ensemble from Emma Jane Fearnley, Jade Marvin, and Katie Stasi. The key to this show lies in finding that heart, which, excluding large production numbers, is aided by the intimate space and Reuben Speed’s realistic design. This production is at its most emotive in the moments played on the smallest scale; the relationships between the three central characters are the heart of this story that moves away from the cartoonish villainy on display elsewhere and give the story real depth. Particular kudos here must go to Sam Kipling’s Gilbert, whose vocal performance ranges from powerhouse to plaintive across the production, and really holds us in the palm of his hand.

Credit: Michaela Walshe

There are moments where I wish a little more attention had been paid to maintaining that intimate feel; the blatant falseness of piano playing and painting is far more obvious in such proximity and pulls us out of a production which is otherwise immersing. Similarly, the lack of microphones is necessary for such a small space but means that solo vocalists struggle in large production numbers, contending with both ensemble vocals and the sound of dance steps, much of which would be mixed out of being a problem in a larger production. Scaling the production to the space should be possible here. At the same time, for two and a half hours of all singing, all dancing, witty and heartfelt social drama, how can you too not fall in love with the quilted title pig? 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Betty Blue Eyes is on at Union Theatre until the 22nd April, tickets and more info here.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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