It seems difficult to write a review of a musical that has become the essential attraction for any tourist visiting London’s Theatreland. My Fair Lady is a classic musical, based around George Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Pygmalion’, and remembered with nostalgia for its 1950’s stage production starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. Is there anyone who cannot hum to the tunes of ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’, ‘With A Little Bit of Luck’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?’ Everyone surely knows the story of Eliza Doolittle the cockney flower girl that Professor Higgins wages with his friend Colonial Pickering that he can transform into a lady.
A well-known musical such as “My Fair Lady” is difficult to produce and make into a smash hit success. People know what to expect from a good production and anything less will not succeed. Trevor Nunn the director of “My Fair Lady” has attempted the revival of other popular musicals within the last few years of his career, and not always to great success. His direction of “South Pacific” at the National Theatre last year, was in my opinion an appalling production of a great show. So how has he faired with “My Fair Lady”?
The production is magnificent, the stars terrific and the stage design impressive. From the moment the curtain lifted until the final encore one was in the hands of professionals, people who are masters of their craft and confidently knew that they could deliver a spectacular show.
Joanna Riding plays Eliza Doolittle with great comical timing. Whether she is Eliza Doolittle the cockney flower girl or Eliza the society lady she brings a natural flourish to both roles. Her transformation from a dirty, ragged, common street girl into a charming sophisticated beautiful “Duchess” is delivered with enchanting simplicity. Whether she is shouting, “Move your bloody arse”, or enunciation “How do you do” I was totally captivated by her. She has a beautiful voice and sings with ease “Wouldn’t it be loverly”, “I could have danced all night” and “Just you wait”.
Alex Jennings gives a competent performance as Henry Higgins, the smug, self-assured bachelor who has learnt to live without women and yet unknowingly falls in love with Eliza. Denis Waterman gives the best male performance as Alfred P Doolittle, Eliza’s father, he is surprisingly good and sings and dances with ease. Also worth mentioning are Caroline Blakiston who plays Mrs Higgins. She indulges the childish pranks of her bachelor son with grace and humour. Dilys Laye gives a beautiful performance as Mrs Pearce, Henry Higgins housekeeper, she portrays a natural gentleness and leniency and her voice is very distinctive.
The choreography by Matthew Bourne is not exceptional, except for the dance routine “With a little bit of luck” where the drunken Alfred Higgins and friends dance with pots and spoons, and dustbin lids, the sheer energy of the ensemble flows with ease to deliver a wonderfully extravagant performance.
So how come I felt disappointed. Sadly, the story itself no longer enthrals, and shows its age and sensibilities. The stark social divide that the original play “Pygmalion” lampoons and tries to address no longer exists. Figures like Henry Higgins and the snobbish hierarchical class driven society that created them are simply too alien for the modern audience to identify with. Rather then be surprised or distressed to discover that a street girl is able, given the right education, to be a lady, the modern day audience is amused that anyone should think that there is some God-given class divide between the two. There is no longer a bittersweet irony to the story and instead the modern audience is left with nothing but sweet cloying sentimentality.
Next review by Tom Keatinge
I saw My Fair Lady twice last year at the National in my capacity as an Olivier Award judge, and in my attempt to see Martine McCutcheon in the role of Eliza, so was curious to see how the production would fare in its new home in Drury Lane, with its somewhat unhappy residence at the National behind it. Of course, having been an Olivier judge during 2001, I could not possibly share my views of last year’s visits; however I am glad to say that the show has lost none of its magic as a result of the transfer. In fact, this time round I felt that the absence of Miss McCutcheon and her off-stage antics somehow helped the production reach a higher level of perfection. Obviously the majority of the cast have an extra year of experience now, but the Higgins/Doolittle relationship was never really credible in Martine’s day – quite the reverse now seems true, with Joanna Riding bringing a passion and enthusiasm to the part that Martine appeared to lack, and exhibiting a palpable chemistry with Jonathan Pryce, which we all know was never there before.
The story is well known, and the music is part of everyone’s conscience, but it is the staging of the production that is truly magical. Anthony Ward’s set design (in particular the marvellous Higgins study), Trevor Nunn’s direction and Matthew Bourne’s choreography combine with the Lerner and Loewe book, lyrics and music to create a glorious background, against which some tremendous acting, singing and dancing can be played.
As Professor Higgins, Jonathan Pryce provides a wonderful and versatile performance that has grown noticeably since last year. His interaction with Nicholas Le Prevost’s bumbling and tremendously entertaining Colonel Pickering is marvellous with both men delivering fantastic performances. Great performances and enjoyable numbers are also contributed by Dennis Waterman as Doolittle senior – the staging and choreography of “With a Little Bit of Luck” are particularly enjoyable – as well as Mark Umber’s sensitive portrayal of Freddy Eynsford-Hill. And what about the newcomer . . . Joanna Riding certainly produces a thoroughly competent Eliza, that sings and dances with the best of them, and as Pryce’s Eliza, Joanna Riding is most definitely credible, bringing an air of relaxation to the partnership that was so obviously absent last year. I suppose my only issue is really whether Riding has the innocence and youth to play Eliza genuinely opposite a younger Higgins, as she soon will – she seems perhaps 10 years too old for the part, and whilst Pryce’s seniority masks this, a younger Professor Higgins might draw unwanted attention to this fact.
Lerner and Loewe’s musical adaptation of the Pygmalion story of the East End flower girl who move West and wins the hearts of her adopted family has forever been associated with the 1950s Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews production. However, in years to come, I am sure this particular Theatre Royal production will be remembered with equal, if not more glorious, standing.
Review by Jonathan Richards
It took me three hours in the cold morning to cue for a day seat to get to see the new NT/Cameron Mackintosh production of Lerner and Lowe's musical classic My Fair Lady - a musical version of Shaw's Pygmalion. Particularly made famous by the film starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, this production of My Fair Lady has been one of the most eagerly awaited shows in London - selling out before the first preview.
After receiving near rave reviews from the press the production has booked a transfer to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. But should there be a transfer?
Does this production deserve its rave reviews and expensive move? Well, yes I suppose.
Having fallen ill with a severe throat infection and acute blood clotting, Martine McCutcheon was not playing Eliza - rather the part was played by 18 year old Alexandra Jay. On the night I saw the show, Jonathan Pryce (Higgins) had obviously caught Martinitis, and he too was off - replaced by Michael N. Harbour. Aware of McCutcheon's absence, I was disappointed when I saw Jonathan Pryce off too - but I needn't have been.
Both understudies way surpassed the quality of most musical acting I have seen: Miss Jay being witty, rogueish, cheeky and silly, but nevertheless making a wonderful transformation into a "Lady". She brings exuberance, grace and beauty to Eliza yet not forgetting her deep underlying insecurities when she is transformed. She also has a wonderful singing voice and is extremely talented as a dancer. She also had a great rapport with Michael N. Harbour's Higgins. Harbour sing/acts the role with wit and style, however his treatment of Eliza never seemed quite cruel enough - the face that he liked Eliza came out quite clearly. He acted very convincingly and was most enjoyable to watch.
The rest of the cast are equally good, particularly Nicholas LePrevost as a slightly scatty, amusing old Colonel Pickering, Dennis Waterman as Dolittle, Patsy Rowlands as the authoritative yet caring and kind Mrs Pearce, and a wonderful performance from Caroline Blakiston as Mrs Higgins.
Musically, the piece is well sung, however the concealed orchestra behind the stage sounds a little tinny broadcast entirely over the speakers. The show looks good too: wonderful, evocative and atmospheric lighting by David Hersey, imaginative choreography from Matthew Bourne and effective if unimaginative set designs from Anthony Ward - the way scenes slide and flow into each other worked very well, and Higgins' study is a scenic design triumph!
The show is long at 3 hours and 15 minutes, but the first half seems to fly by for the sheer entertainment factor and the second half is very theatrically fulfilling - much of the emotion is brought out here. Trevor Nunn directs with thought and precision - though I found some of the staging silly (unnecessary moving around) or unimaginative (standing in straight lines) and his cast bring out the best in this show.
It didn't leave me dancing all night, nor did I leave humming more than one tune, but I certainly left with a big smile on my face!
This production has received great notices from the popular press... NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD describes Martine McCutcheon's performance as 'marvellous" and describes the show as "fairly magical". SHERIDAN MORLEY for TELETEXT says the show is "sharp and sturdy".He goes on to say, "Matthew Bourne's choreography is brilliant.." MICHAEL COVENEY for THE DAILY MAIL, describes McCutcheon's performance as "bubbly, bright and immensely endearing". He goes on to say, "In Jonathan Pryce's Higgins we have a major performance by a major actor." He finishes with describing the show as "Wonderfully theatrical." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Pryce combines commanding authority with charm and delivers the songs with far more panache than Rex Harrison." He goes on to say, "The night belongs to McCutcheon." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "A success to rival the National's Oklahoma!." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The first half of the evening is shamelessly enjoyable. But after the interval, doubts crowd in about the show and the production." ROBERT GORE-LANGTON for THE DAILY EXPRESS says, "It's effortlessly enjoyable." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Trevor Nunn's show crackles like a house on fire."