Cats, pigs – what is it with Cameron Mackintosh and our four-legged friends? The renowned producer’s first new musical for a decade turns on the fate of a pretty pink porker – the Betty of the title – and whether or not she will end up on a banqueting table.
It’s a good-natured, likeable show, with quirky charm, plenty of crackling and a take-home, hummable tune for the lead song. It chimes with the times, to a degree, being set in an austerity Britain in the lead-up to a royal wedding. And it’s boldly unusual too: it’s a rash choice to write a West End musical that turns on small-town snobbery in 1940s Yorkshire – rasher still to have an animatronic pig as the lead. But then this is a musical that celebrates ingenuity and guts and, in Richard Eyre’s witty staging, it proves a largely happy marriage of subject and style.
Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman’s book (based on the film A Private Function, written by Alan Bennett) takes us to Shepardsford in 1947, a postwar world of rations and penny-pinching. The government talks of “Fair Shares for All”, but some citizens are more equal than others. A coven of town councillors have their snouts in every trough. They plan to pig out on the royal wedding day with illegally raised pork (Betty). But they reckon without Adrian Scarborough’s beady-eyed meat inspector and an unlikely local hero, chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers.
Gilbert would be happy scratching a living from fixing people’s feet but his wife Joyce has other ideas. She’s tired of being snubbed by snobs, and once she learns of the pig’s existence, she determines to get her revenge. So it is that Betty ends up in their bathroom, creating a figurative and literal stink.
Cowen and Lipman drop in references to both Macbeth and Animal Farm, while George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, writing the songs, draw deftly on the music of the period and produce some droll delights. Reece Shearsmith, a lovely, open-faced Gilbert, sings a witty ditty about bunions and verrucas, while his lonely patients bring real poignancy to their song about his “magic fingers”. Sarah Lancashire holds the stage as Joyce, giving rein to her frustrations in her fantasy number “Nobody” and shimmying along the table of her gluttonous tormentors (choreography from Stephen Mear). There’s a nice turn, too, from Ann Emery as the confused aged mother, who can’t tell porky pies with conviction.
It’s too long by several numbers and hits some duff notes: the meat inspector’s surreal fantasy, for example, is not funny or weird enough. But it is charmingly idiosyncratic, and Betty, whenever she takes the stage, with her twitching ears and disturbingly lifelike squeals, hogs the limelight in the nicest possible way.