United Kingdom Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady: Company, English National Opera Orchestra / Gareth Valentine (conductor). 18.5.2022 (JPr)
Book and Lyrics – Alan Jay Lerner
Music – Frederick Loewe
Director – Bartlett Sher
Sets – Michael Yeargan
Costumes – Catherine Zuber
Choreography – Christopher Gattelli
Music Director – Gareth Valentine
Lighting – Donald Holder
Sound – Marc Salzberg
Amara Okereke – Eliza Doolittle
Harry Hadden-Paton – Henry Higgins
Stephen K Amos – Alfred P Doolittle
Malcolm Sinclair – Colonel Hugh Pickering
Dame Vanessa Redgrave – Mrs Higgins
Maureen Beattie – Mrs Pearce
Sharif Afifi – Freddie Eynsford-Hill
I don’t have too many preconceived ideas about My Fair Lady because I have only seen the 1964 film once all the way through and watched the musical in the theatre only once before and that was more than twenty years ago in a revival at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. I have few memories of it except that Dennis Waterman (who sadly died recently) was Eliza Doolittle’s father, Alfred, a role he seemed born for. Nevertheless, I am sure that, like many others, I have heard the songs so often that I might have sung along if I had a voice anyone would like to hear.
A very brief reminder: the musical by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) is based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. Eliza Doolittle is a cockney flower girl who accepts speech lessons from Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, so that she can go to an Embassy ball without anyone guessing her lowly upbringing and that she is not a lady. Despite Higgins’s cynicism and inability to comprehend women, he bets another linguist, Colonel Hugh Pickering, that he can achieve this within six months. Giving Eliza no credit for her eventual success she leaves Higgins’s home where she has been staying just when the ‘confirmed bachelor’ realises he needs Eliza and maybe is in love with her (and possibly with a woman for the first time?).
What we are seeing in London is Bartlett Sher’s award-winning 2018 Lincoln Center Theatre revival. Overall, I had expected better sets from Michael Yeargan, though maybe their functionality was necessary for taking this My Fair Lady on tour. However Higgins’s towering, two-story Wimpole Street townhouse interior is mightily impressive and frequently slides forward from the recesses of the London Coliseum’s deep stage and can rotate (often to little purpose it must be said) to reveal other areas of the house and all decorated in exquisite detail. Elsewhere the stage is rather too bare, with just impressionistic two-dimensional scenery with only occasionally something more substantial pushed on and off. There is a painted skyline of Old London Town that greets you as you take your seats with the St Paul’s dome (of course), chimneys and the Thames in the background, all suggesting a slightly grey, smoggy world. It is all an idealised, Disneyfied (aka American?) version of London and the set could equally have been used for Mary Poppins. Catherine Zuber’s glorious costume designs pay homage to those for the 1964 film without replicating them per se.
Nevertheless, this My Fair Lady boasts a wonderful ensemble with several high-octane performances and some great singing. There is a superb performance from – what I understand to be – the 36 musicians of the English National Opera Orchestra playing the sumptuous original orchestrations for Gareth Valentine. However some doubts remain, particularly that it is being stage in the UK at a time when class consciousness is permeating into all aspects of British life more than ever it seems, and you are either one of ‘them’ or one of ‘us’.
I do not intend to comment on the colour-blind casting as that is not an issue in 2022, what is an issue is to have to sit for a long part of three hours having a woman despised and belittled by an out-and-out misogynist who hates women because he fears them. ’Guttersnipe’ and ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ are two of Higgins’s milder description of Eliza and, along with her father, he advocates she could be beaten into submission. It is little use having to put up with this and then seeing suffragettes proclaim ‘Votes for Women’; an enthusiastic Broadway dance routine with performers can-caning away and showing a huge degree of gender fluidity for Alfred’s anthemic ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’; or hinting at Pickering’s sexual preference and suggesting he may want more than just a platonic relationship with Higgins, who indeed maybe a repressed homosexual. The overtly sexist Higgins remains oblivious and apathetic to Eliza’s feelings and – in Sher’s retelling – at the end gets what he deserves but it all rather too late.
The absurdity of the nineteenth-century male is not satirised enough in my opinion, and the nature of those depicted in My Fair Lady – who Shaw was attempting to throw the spotlight on – needs a revisionist (feminist) approach which the over-respectful Sher doesn’t give it, though some might think he does. On the plus side Sher does show that for anybody it is what’s in the inside that matters and not the outside. There is a feeling that Higgins is not responsible for transforming Eliza but he is just the conduit in lighting the spark within her such that she recognises – in her new sophisticated self – the true woman she always probably was: capable, (street) smart and with considerable inner drive and strength.
If I was to pick one scene for special praise in this uneven production it is when Higgins take Eliza to meet his mother at the Ascot races and just enjoy those still figures lined up and following the sound of horses galloping across the London Coliseum thanks to Sensurround. All topped off by Eliza’s famous line, ‘Move your bloomin’ arse!’.
Sher introduces Eliza quietly as she walks alone down a gaslit street which suggests – as we will discover – she is her own woman. Amara Okereke is fine actor and singer and consummately shows Eliza’s arc as a street flower seller ready for a scrap to the confident young woman who stands up to Higgins at the end and makes him aware – at last – of his shortcomings, before setting out on an uncertain future. Okereke is a true star, my only mildest criticism is that she is a little too cartoonish to begin with, overly feisty, and shouts a little too much.
As a Downtown Abbey regular Harry Hadden-Paton as Higgins is right at home with the upstairs, downstairs goings-on at Wigmore Street – including a very amusing pompous butler – all overseen by Maureen Beattie’s stalwart, house-proud Mrs Pearce. Hadden-Paton is significantly younger than Rex Harrison’s original which makes any relationship – not that it will happen – with Eliza would be more age-appropriate. He has a manic self-centred arrogance (reminiscent of classic portrayals of Sherlock Holmes) but with the thin skin of a public schoolboy who has never really grown-up and has lived his life never entirely pleasing a domineering mother. Hadden-Paton is a better singer than Harrison but he still employs sprechstimme (a mix of speech and singing) and it is Harrison who you hear when he sings ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face’.
There are some stunning voices in the ensemble if not so much from the principals; Malcolm Sinclair was the archetypal relic of the British Empire, a retired army officer who has spent too long in the Indian sub-continent, he is a bit of an old-duffer, genial, caring, if rather fey. Stephen K Amos is excellent as Eliza’s dustman father, though there is no suggestion he ever stops drinking to do any work. Whilst bemoaning his lot as the embodiment of Shaw’s ‘undeserving poor’ and someone who is ‘up against middle-class morality’ he is only too happy to accept money from Higgins. He gets a comeuppance of sorts when as a result of a surprise bequest, having not beaten them, he joins the ranks of middle-class respectability. Amos’s comic timing is impeccable and he sings well enough to make the most of his big moments, ‘With a Little Bit of Luck’ and, of course, ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’. Sharif Afifi plays the Hooray Henry-ish Freddie Eynsford-Hill and does what he can with this woeful underwritten role. Oddly, Eliza dismisses him just like Higgins treats her. He sings ‘On the Street Where You Live’ pleasantly enough, but not showstoppingly. Carl Patrick hams it up as funny foreigner Professor Zoltan Kaparthy who Eliza convinces she is high-born.
Finally, there is Dame Vanessa Redgrave, in what must be one of her final London stage appearances, who is a frail, yet very game Mrs Higgins whose interjections remind you another great Dame, Maggie Smith, as the (recently-deceased) Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey.
For more about My Fair Lady in London and on its UK tour click here.