**** (4 stars)
“a resounding triumph”
I remember being bowled over by the 1964 film with Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, and Wilfrid Hyde-White. The costumes and production design by Cecil Beaton showcased the whole glossy, glorious, glitzy display of English aristocracy at its imperious best. How fascinating to see my reaction to the show live on stage now and realise just how much tastes and attitudes have changed in the intervening years.
The story centres around Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle who encounters phonetics professor Henry Higgins in Covent Garden. He’s notating the different vowel sounds he hears in the people around him: she believes his assertion that he could teach her to speak so ‘correctly’ she could get a job in a flower shop. She goes to his house, offering to pay for lessons: he decides to use her to prove his theory to his friend and fellow linguistics scholar Colonel Pickering – he will transform her and present her as a member of the aristocracy at the Embassy ball in a few months’ time.
There’s a lot of hard work on Eliza’s part, a lot of bullying on Higgins’s, and a disastrous outing to the races at Ascot. Finally the deception succeeds: one person present at the ball is even convinced that Eliza is a member of the Hungarian aristocracy. The two men are delighted with their success and completely ignore the exhausted Eliza.
Finally, the worm turns, and Eliza leaves Higgins’ house, but not before giving him a piece of her mind. He dismisses this in typical fashion – go to bed and have a little cry and you’ll feel better in the morning – before instructing her to make sure he gets coffee in the morning instead of tea. He wakes to find her gone. In his own constipated upper-class male way he realises he misses her, but though he is relieved to find that she is staying with his mother, he can’t bring himself to say so clearly, or to apologise for his behaviour. Back at home, he is listening to one of his recordings of Eliza’s voice when she enters – has she come back to him?
It’s a fabulous show, full of oh-so-familiar songs, and some very lively scenes: but oh my! it’s also unbelievably sexist, classist, intellectualist and just about everything else-ist you can think of.
I found myself simultaneously appreciating Michael D Xavier’s impressive performance as Henry Higgins and enraged by what an infuriatingly arrogant, patronising male chauvinist pig he was. So obviously convinced that men are inherently superior to women in every way; so convinced that women only exist to minister to him and meet his every need; so blind to the idea that every human being, no matter what their position in society may be, deserves to be treated equally and with respect; so much the antithesis of all I hold to be true – no wonder I found him hard to like. At the same time, I have enormous admiration for the way he played this inherently unlikeable character – greatly helped, of course, by the dialogue and song lyrics which oh-so-subtly reinforce the message that ‘it isn’t my fault – I’m such a reasonable man at heart’.
I also struggled with the whole ‘gor blimey mate’ Cockney ‘loveable rogue’ scenes. In a more ‘innocent’ [ignorant?] world, Stanley Holloway managed to carry the role off with a twinkle in his eye. Viewed through 21st century eyes, Alfred Doolittle is an unlovable idler who’ll take advantage of anyone in any way that he can to ensure that he lives the life of Riley at someone else’s expense. He’s even prepared to sell his daughter into elegant prostitution – which he thinks is the reason for Eliza’s presence in the Higgins’ household – if he can make a quid or few from it. Small wonder Eliza doesn’t want to come to his wedding or, indeed, having anything to do with him if she can help it. Adam Woodyatt did his best, but failed to convince me that there was anything to like about him.
Charlotte Kennedy, playing Eliza, seems to be fairly fresh out of theatre school – but obviously has a great career in front of her. She did an excellent job of transitioning from graceless Cockney ‘sparrer; wistfully singing All I want is a room somewhere to the thrilled young woman pouring her heart out in I could have danced all night. She more than stood up to Higgins, refusing to be cowed, determinedly sticking to the rigorous regime he forced upon her. She blossomed into an elegant, poised young woman, articulate and self-possessed, and able to give as good as she got in argument with Higgins. I was definitely rooting for her throughout, and silently cheered her final choice of action [which I’m not going to reveal].
John Middleton’s Colonel Pickering, though partly on Eliza’s side and mildly protesting about some of Higgins’ more outrageous demands, nonetheless accepts without question that Higgins’s inhumanity towards her is a necessary part of the whole process: nor does he in any way question the rightness of making such an ‘experiment’ in the first place. There’s a lot of Male Bonding Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, too…!
Lesley Garrett, leaving the opera stage to tread the boards as Mrs Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper, also had more sympathy for Eliza – but at the same time, she and the household staff were full of Poor Professor Higgins as he tormented Eliza night and day: not a hint of ‘poor Eliza’ seems to have entered anyone’s head.
For me, the two outstanding characters were Henry’s mother, played by Heather Jackson, and Freddie Eynsford-Hill, played by Tom Liggins. Mrs Higgins plays a small but extremely significant part. She initially views Eliza with some distaste, but becomes the only person among the moneyed and leisured class to see and value her. She overcomes her initial resistance and takes her to her heart: she is concerned for Eliza’s welfare, staunchly upholding her in the face of her son’s protestations. She points out that Henry only has himself to blame for Eliza leaving – in strong contrast to her son, who persists in seeing Eliza as something necessary to his comfort which he is entitled to possess.
Tom/ Freddie not only has a gorgeous voice which admirably suited On the street where you live but also was the perfect representation of an upper-class twit completely bowled over by Eliza. She’s completely unlike any girl he’s ever met before, and he’s unable to do anything but hang around outside her house and bombard her with love letters. It’s small wonder that Eliza seriously considers marrying him, and making something of both their lives, despite Higgins’ derision.
The sizeable ensemble were superb, switching effortlessly from cheery Cockneys to efficient servants to haughty aristocrats, with much splendid singing and dancing along the way. The Get me to the church on time scene had some wonderful characters, including a cross-dressing quartet; the servants swept and polished their way around the household with a right good will, and the absolute precision, both in movement and song, of the assembled aristocracy at the Ascot Opening Day scene was a joy to behold. Their cut-glass accents only faltered once – alas, it was in naming the event they were attending that they slipped up: ‘Ascot’ should rhyme with ‘chatbot’ but the second syllable was a clearly-enunciated ‘uh’ which jarred.
The Higgins house set was a marvel to behold. The main part was the sort of library I dream of having, with books not only around the walls but on an upper gallery with a wonderful [?double] spiral staircase, and it rotated to show other areas of the house as needed. Apart from that, there was little solid scenery. The street scenes were indicated by drop-down/ wheel on ‘buildings’, Ascot was simply a space open to the clear blue sky, and the Embassy ball appeared to take place within a wonderful wrought-iron birdcage – possibly hinting at the prison-like existence of its noble inhabitants?
I’ve come across the work of director Bartlett Sher on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but not previously seen his work on the musical stage. It was superb – he rightly won a Tony for the Broadway run of the show. Lights, music, staging, costumes were all splendid. The costumes – especially in the Ascot and ballroom scenes – were utterly glorious: such an array of hats at Ascot, with Eliza’s impossibly huge one surpassing all the others, and a constant procession of fabulous frocks throughout the show.
My Fair Lady is a resounding triumph – the audience was generous with its applause throughout, and many of them rose to their feet at the final curtain call. Having opened in Cardiff, the show’s only appearance in Scotland is at the Playhouse in Edinburgh, after which it moves to various English cities. I can’t think of a more extravagantly delicious way to indulge yourself over the festive period – if you haven’t already done so, make sure to grab a ticket!
My Fair Lady Lerner & Loewe, Edinburgh Playhouse, Runs until Saturday 7th January 2023 for tickets go to: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/my-fair-lady/edinburgh-playhouse/