Sunday, 24 April 2011

Two WWII Themed Theatre Reviews: "Betty Blue Eyes" and "Flare Path"

Hello to you all and a very happy Easter too. I hope that you have been enjoying the glorious weather (that's if you are in the UK, I'm not sure how the weather is elsewhere, I am sorry if your weather is awful, I don't want to rub it in!) and have been having a wonderful time doing wonderful and interesting things. I have found myself frequenting the theatre recently and so I thought I'd share some of the gems I've seen with you.

Since starting this blog I have found that my fascination with the WWII era - one that I have had since I was a child when I would play "evacuation" with my chums! - has definitely been rekindled through my interest in 1940s/50s fashion and how greatly these were effected by the war, so can you imagine how excited I was when the West End suddenly seemed full of WWII themed theatre! I am going to guide you through two opposite sides of the theatrical spectrum with the following pair of reviews: the musical comedy "Betty Blue Eyes" and the Terrence Rattigan play "Flare Path".

"Betty Blue Eyes" is set in 1947, when Britain was still feeling the pinch after the end of the war. Food was still a great concern as the country was still on the ration, and with a royal wedding around the corner (of then Princess Elizabeth to her finance Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten) people were unable to even dream of a feast to celebrate the event, as everyone was having to "Make Do an Mend" is every possible way. That is unless you were a member of a particular town council who jointly purchased an illegal pig which they were fattening up for a private wedding feast in honour of the royal occasion. And this pig is, of course, the lovely Betty Blue Eyes.

Betty Blue Eyes

Along side this story runs the journey of married couple Gilbert and Joyce Chilvers, a chiropodist and his wife, both of whom (well her in particular!) want more out of life than they are currently getting. Gilbert dreams of his own practice on the parade in town, and Joyce of being more than just a nobody, wanting to be someone who is the first to know everything and is invited to every private function. Throw this together with an obsessive destroyer of illegal meat, 74 year old "Mother Dear", an ensemble of incredible talents, a score that will get your toes tapping, dancing that will take your breath away and a pig that's as pretty as a picture and you're starting to get the idea of what "Betty Blue Eyes" is like!

The show has some really great moments. It's very, very funny and both of the leads - Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith - have impeccable comic timing, Lancashire with her brilliant straight faced delivery of lines like "And when you get back sexual intercourse will be in order", and Shearsmith with an array of hilarious physical reactions that will leave you in stitches. There are some fabulous numbers in the piece too. Memorable songs include the rousing solo "Nobody" in which Joyce makes the transformation from housewife to glamourous show girl and back again in the comfort of her own living room, and an incredible 1940s high energy dance routine that will, I guarantee, make every member of the audience long for swing dance lessons! It's a real heart warming piece of theatre that will raise your spirits and see you leaving with a smile on your face :)
The fabulous Sarah Lancashire
Dancing that will knock your socks off!

Of course I wouldn't be me if I hadn't been watching the costumes for the whole show! And this production really does have some gems! Sarah Lancashire has some of the most beautiful pieces, including a sweet house coat and a fabulous hot pink dress in the second half, but my particular favourite is the outfit below. She looks so classy in her gorgeous plaid wool coat with brown leather gloves and matching felt hat, an example of how post-war women still strove to look chic even in the hardest of times. And, of course her hair is a dream, but I that's what I would expect from a wig ;)

Could I borrow your coat, Sarah?

Of course the show couldn't have come to London at a better time - considering that we are currently coming out of recession so everyone is feeling financially vulnerable, and we have our very own royal wedding around the corner! - so this may have been part of why I related to the characters so much and therefore enjoyed it so greatly. I also loved how quintessentially British the whole piece was, very stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on. But most of all I liked how even though it's fun and, let's face it, a bit bizarre and silly, it still shows that what got our country through such difficult times was our nation's spirit and determination, something that I find sadly lacking in our modern age. I guess I'm just a sucker for a good nostalgic piece of theatre! 

If you are a fan of the WWII era, and are looking for an evening of giggles, I really couldn't recommend "Betty Blue Eyes" more. It is unashamedly and simultaneously, daft, kitsch, silly, charming and ridiculous,  whether or not you think that is a bad thing is personal opinion I guess. But I thought it was marvelous :)

Royal Wedding anyone?

And now for something completely different! I can safely say that the only thing "Flare Path" has in common with "Betty Blue Eyes" is the era in which it is set (although "Flare Path" takes place in 1942, in the thick of the war). The manner in which the story is told, and the story itself, couldn't be more different. 

"Flare Path" takes place at the Falcon Hotel, just around the corner from a RAF air base, in which several members of the RAF are preparing to spend the weekend with their wives. Before they arrive, Hollywood film star Peter Kyle turns up at the hotel and it soon becomes clear that something has been going on between him and Patricia, an RAF bomber pilot's wife. The play covers the following two days in which people arrive and depart, many events occur, including a dramatic and emotional climax that no one could have predicted. Sorry for being so vague, but if you intend to see this play I would be horrified if I spoilt a single moment for you! It really gives the audience member the most heart wrenching, beautiful and intense experience, so I don't want to elaborate in case my telling you the ins and outs would take that away from you as a viewer! I'll just say that if you can get through the play without both laughing out loud and crying your eyes out you're a better man than me :)

Beautiful Sheridan Smith

I have to say that the star of the evening for me was Sheridan Smith. Playing Doris, a normal East Ender who has become a Duchess through marriage to Polish Johnny Skriczevinsky, she breathes life into the play, presenting a character who is instantly likable and relatable. Her look on the bright side attitude must have been one shared by many woman of the era, particularly those with spouses in the force. She is commented on as being "very brave", to which she replies: "Brave? Oh no, I'm just ready." You can imagine these words being a mantra for thousands of wives of the time. Smith portrays an entire generation of wives of the armed forces and does so with grace, humour and heart, I simply couldn't fault her. Her relationship with her husband (played by Mark Dexter) was particularly beautiful, as they communicated with difficulty, her very colloquially and him in broken English, and yet they always understand each other where it really counts. (Incidentally, this play was so riveting that I didn't just sit there admiring the costumes, but Sheridan Smith did have the best outfits by far, I mean just look at the beautiful red outfit with the gorgeous dress clips! *swoon!*)

Mark Dexter and Sheridan Smith

Of course the main story line is a love triangle, a will-she-won't-she kind of deal, but "Flare Path" is so much more than this. I found that I was not focusing on this story at all, I was rather fixated on the lives of the men of the RAF. This play really gives the audience member a peek into what it must have been like for the men who fought for us in the Second World War. We get a taste of how these men behaved around their friends and family - comforting those around them, caring for civilians even outside the battle field -  and with their fellow RAF members - the camaraderie and brotherhood they shared - but we are also given a glimpse of the terror that must have filled so many fighters every time they were called out.  We are given a look at World War Two that is extremely personal and therefore extremely poignant. Perhaps the strongest portrayal of this kind of emotion is given by Harry Hadden-Paton as Teddy, in an intense exchange with Sienna Miller as Patricia. 

Sienna Miller and Harry Hadden-Paton

Unlike "Betty Blue Eyes", "Flare Path" does not just play on a feeling of WWII nostalgia with a bit of fun and kitsch, it gives us a very real look into real lives of real people and therefore it produces a very real response from it's audience. You can really tell that this piece was written in 1941, actually during the period in question, because every speech and reference has the weight of real people's hopes and fears for the future. Unlike "Betty Blue Eyes" this is not new theatre, and it shows in the best possible sense. This play is so moving I really cannot explain, you literally feel like you have been transported to another time and are living these people's lives with them. If you are looking for a real WWII experience then you will love this play. It's practically perfect in every way. See it and then let's talk about it ok? :)

Flare Path = Perfection

So there you have it, two very different pieces of WWII themed theatre, each brilliant in their own ways. I would recommend both of them for different reasons - "Betty Blue Eyes" for some nostalgic light hearted fun, "Flare Path" for a perfectly delivered WWII experience - but I would recommend them both wholeheartedly. If you are in London in the near future then see these shows, believe me you will not be disappointed!

Do let me know if you do see either of the shows, I'd love to discuss them with someone :) But for now, Happy Easter and I hope everyone in the UK is enjoying the bank holiday weekend!

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