I reviewed the West End premiere of this new Stiles-and-Drew musical, directed by Richard Eyre and passionately backed by Cameron Mackintosh (the man was happily obsessed with his animatronic pig, which sang in Kylie Minogue’s voice at the curtain call). My Times review (£ paywall http://tinyurl.com/lhacvz5) was enthusiastic: the story of post-war rationing and snobbery defeated – based on an Alan Bennett TV play – was “witty, rude, lovable, warm, dramatic, hilarious.” I said it “beautifully evokes that Bennett north, preoccupied with good dinners and bad feet” . It was also timely, with its theme of a town preparing a banquet to mark Princess Elizabeth’s wedding, just as William and Kate revved up for theirs.
But for all the affection poured on the show, despite Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith in the lead, it did not run and run. I rather mourned it, with its lovely tunes, its English self-aware nostalgia and bicycling chiropodist hero (few musical lyricists would tackle the words “fetid fungal growth” or hymn verrucae with such elegance). I hoped it would find an afterlife, and suspected that an out-of-London tour was its best hope. Away from the West End audiences are more relaxed, pay less, and perhaps have a little more generosity of spirit.
So I have been wanting to catch up with Daniel Buckroyd’s recast, touring production. And it is lovely. I caught it in Oxford – though an unavoidable late start sadly made me miss the denouement in favour of a train – and can confirm that there’s real joy in Buckroyd’s version, slightly re-tweaked and presented with what he calls a “make do and mend austerity aesthetic.
It may not have major stars but it has even more personality: Tobias Beer booming a ferocious bass as evil Mr Wormold the Food Inspector , Haydn Oakley enchanting as Gilbert the chiropodist, the humble worm that turns. Amy Booth-Steel is plaintively bossy as his wife, dreaming of social advancement, one of those who like Bennett’s portrait of his own mother, will always long for roast pork but suspect that their life will always be spam.
The illegal pig, whose personality, theft and final consumption lie at the heart of the show, is not the clever but limited half-robot of the West End: this time she is a thing of cloth, manoeuvred by Lauren Logan with that magic puppetry which works so surprisingly well on stage ever since War Horse taught us that it could. And my favourite song of any recent new musical made me softly happy again, especially so soon after the D-Day commemorations and the renewed appreciation of that generation. As Gilbert tends the bad feet of war-widows and weary, hungry ration-era wives struggling to hold families together in 1947, they sing their gentle chorus of appreciation: “He reminds me of my husband as he was before the war…he has magic fingers, magic hands..”.
Daft, homely, but tears in the eyes. I’m glad it’s roaming onward and will last. Yorkshire and Liverpool next. Go for it.
12 June – 5 July West Yorkshire Playhouse
Tickets: 0113 213 7700 or http://www.wyp.org.uk
9 July – 2 August Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse
Tickets: 0151 709 4776 or http://www.everymanplayhouse.com