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Lerner and Loewe’s classic musical My Fair Lady has always been a crowd pleaser. When it first played on Broadway with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrew’s in the lead roles in 1960 it became an instant classic and was soon made into an Oscar winning movie. The film saw Harrison reprising his seminal performance as Higgins but the delicious Audrey Hepburn was a less than convincing Eliza. But the film was a visual feast with Cecil Beaton creating many of the superb costumes and sets. I like the film version but I love the soundtrack of the original stage version for its verve and energy. So coming to the new National Theatre production of My Fair Lady directed by Trevor Nunn as something of an aficionado, I was apprehensive. I must confess to having avoided this production’s early performances because of an irrational dislike of Martine McCutcheon. But now that the ex-Eastenders star has moved on I bit the bullet and paid £22.50 for Upper Circle tickets at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. From curtain up my worries dissipated as I realised that the production was a gem and a wonderful interpretation of a work I know well. The scale and ambition of the set was inspiring. The music was perfect and the inventiveness of the director apparent. The audience was immediately transported back 90 years and 300 yards west to Covent Garden, as well to do opera goers are thrown together with the working class marketfolk on a rainy night. The scene was set for our amusing musical commentary on the British class system. It is in the portico of St Paul’s Church Covent Garden that Higgins, Eliza and Pickering first collide. Eliza is selling posies, Colonel Pickering is trying to catch a taxi and Higgins is taking it all down in his notepad. From this fortuitous meeting springs Pickering and Higgin’s friendship based on a mutual fascination with linguistics and a daring bet to turn the flowergirl into a duchess. In the first song, when Higg
ins begs an answer to his question “why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” It is obvious that Pryce is perfectly cast to play the imperious and impetuous Professor. Rex Harrison made the role of the irascible Henry Higgins his own with his splendid sprechen-sang and volcanic moodiness. Jonathan Pryce gives the part a little more subtly and boyishness. He has a good voice which he deploys well, although at times I wondered if he couldn’t have given it a bit more welly. My Fair Lady, and the play Pygmalion by GBS, relies on the actress playing Eliza Doolittle. It is she who plays in essence two characters. Joanna Riding is triumphant as Eliza having just the right mix of sexiness and intelligence to make her truly convincing. And she has a beautiful voice. In “wouldn’t it be luvverly” and in the later songs I found her utterly captivating. But moreover she is an excellent actor. One of my favourite scenes in the play is where Eliza arrives at Higgin’s house on Wimpole Street and requests lessons. It is largely a scene without music and is pretty much identical to Shaw’s original and this strong acting cast kept up the pace and delivered all the subtlety and humour intended by Shaw. In particular Mrs Pearce, played by Patsy Rowland, was hilarious as the disapproving housekeeper. It is, in many ways, the strength of the supporting cast that make the play so effective. Not only is Mrs Pearce brilliant but Dennis Waterman has considerable aplomb as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, and Nigel le Provost as Colonel Pickering provides a lion’s share of the comedy. The original Doolittle was Stanley Holloway whose cheeky cockney authenticity was well tested after years in music hall and theatre. He was one of Britain’s greatest character actors, but Dennis Waterman puts on a heroic performance that is deserving of special mention. He certainly doesn’t have
the gusto of Holloway but he does have the glint in his eye and when he knocks out both of his big tunes, “with a little bit of luck” and “I’m getting married in the morning”, he more than makes up for it with energy. Waterman is all over the stage as a kind of ringleader to the chorus’ energetic dancing. If there is a complaint about Doolittle, it is that we don’t see enough of him and I suspect some smaller scenes have been cut but still Waterman makes his mark. Nigel le Provost plays Pickering to urban perfection mixing military bearing with great humour and tremendous politeness. I always like to think of Higgins and Pickering as schoolboy playmates and this performance really brings that out. In particular Pickering’s attempt to describe to Higgins where they should buy Eliza’s clothes is hilarious. At the risk of being overly critical, one key cast member is a little disappointing: Mark Umbers as Freddie Eynsford-Hill. Freddie must be a bit of a twit and he caught that perfectly but whenever I saw him on stage I found myself thinking of Prince Charles. He did a great job of singing his fabulous song “I have often walked down this street before” but he was perhaps a little too wet. The sets and the imaginative staging draw the whole production together, almost seamlessly, providing energy and maintaining pace. The centrepiece of the set designed by Anthony Ward is a Victorian style iron archway disappearing into the distance with cunning forced perspective. This offers the initial backdrop of the market perfectly but also transforms elegantly into the manic and bookish interior of Higgin’s house, the grand setting of the Embassy ball and his mother’s more elaborate conservatory style rooms. There was also fascinating use of the conveyor belts that run from side to side of the stage carrying the see on and off. This was used to particular effect in the company scene
s and integrated with the choreography which was intelligently devised by Matthew Bourne. In particular the Ascot scenes were impeccable and really parodied the buttoned up attitudes of Edwardian England. In this scene to the splendid costumes were really shown off. I enjoyed this performance enormously. Towards the end I did become irritated by Pryce and Riding playing to the gallery. With Higgins delivering most of “I’ve grown accustomed to her face” and some of “Hymn to Him” to the audience. But in essence this was a performance that played it for laughs and there is nothing wrong with that. Even if you aren’t into musical theatre this production is a real treat. It manages to mix excellent acting, great humour and fantastic songs all backed up with some accomplished singing and an exemplary orchestra. I went in suspicious, and wary that they might ruin a favourite of mine. But I am happy to say they’ve got it, by George, they’ve got it.
When I heard that Martine McCutcheon was going to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady in London's West End I was thrilled to bits. My favourite musical with one of my favourite performers, we just had to get tickets! We tried to get tickets earlier in the year but had no joy so we finally booked a weekend coach trip for the first weekend of December. A few weeks before we were due to go I saw a headline in the paper announcing that Martine McCutcheon was to drop out of the performance due to continued ill health. I looked at the article and found that she had decided to finish playing Eliza Doolittle on the weekend after our visit, so that was OK then. Unfortunately she had to pull out earlier as the strain of constant performances really was having an adverse effect on her health both mental and physical, so that was that then. I almost suggested that we cancelled as I was so disappointed but I am so glad that I didn't - the show was a triumph! The show was staged at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which is a lovely theatre, and we had seats in the front row of the balcony. The show was performed using the same script as the musical when Rex Harrison taught Audrey Hepburn to talk 'proper', so I could have recited it with them for the most part! Not that it spoiled the enjoyment in any way. A lady named Alexandra Jay played the part of Eliza Doolittle and did so brilliantly. She had only recently made her West End debut in Cats, playing a minor cat and understudying Rumpleteazer. There is no way you would have guessed that this was her first major role! She has a lovely clear voice with an almost operatic quality to it, and she had a real presence on stage particularly when she was dressed to go to the Embassy Ball. Jonathon Pryce, an accomplished actor whose face I recognised but couldn't actually place him in anything, played the part of Professor Higgins. After r
eading the programme (incidentally only costing £3) I realised that I recognised him from Tomorrow Never Dies, probably not one of the highlights of his career as far as he is concerned! Nicholas Le Provost played the part of Colonel Pickering, again a face I knew but couldn't have named without the help of my programme! Dennis Waterman of Sweeny and Minder fame played Eliza's father, Alfred P Doolittle. He was superb and got quite a cheer at the end when he took his bow. As I said earlier the stage version was taken from the original film score by Lerner and Loewe, which in turn was taken from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Basically the story is about Eliza Doolittle, who is a flower seller in the London's East End and who has the most common speaking voice that you?ve ever heard. She is spotted by Professor Higgins, who is an accomplished linguist, and he makes a bet with Colonel Pickering, a fellow linguist, that he can improve Eliza's speech to such a degree that he will be able to pass her off as a lady at the Embassy Ball. Of course he wins his bet, but not without many trials along the way. When the ball is over Higgins and Pickering are so busy congratulating one another that they forget all about Eliza and the work that she has put in. She turns to Higgins' mother for advice and she in turn tells Higgins that he'll loose Eliza if he doesn't treat her properly. As he has 'grown accustomed to her face' they sort things out between them and the play closes with Eliza returning to Higgins as his equal. I have always liked this particular musical as the story has what I consider to be a real ending - not one of these happy ever after, man marries woman and woman worships man sort of thing. I would recommend this version to anyone who likes musicals. The scenery is very clever as the settings change from Higgins' study to the East End st
reets to Ascot races. The race scene specifically is stunning with the fantastic outfits all in black as 'the King has just died' and of course there?s always THE classic line from the play in this scene too. 'Come on Dover - move your bloomin' arse!' I do hope that the production tours the provinces after its run in London as I would definitely go and see it again. By the way if you don't know the play or the film the title of this opinion is a quote form Eliza Doolittle!