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My Fair Lady

By • West End
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When this revival of My Fair Lady first opened at the National Theatre, I grouched only that it was opening at the National, not in the West End where it belonged and was indeed headed all along. There was, too, subsequently lots more grouching about the reliability of the much-heralded star, Martine McCutcheon, who I noted in my original review had already missed the final preview and went on to miss more performances at the National than she actually gave.

But all of that is history now; and with the show long installed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - the same address that the original production was seen at in 1958 - it now moves onto its second cast change since it opened as seamlessly as it accomplished the first.

The Olivier-award winning McCutcheon and Jonathan Pryce were first succeeded by Joanna Riding and Alex Jennings, both of whom went on to take Oliviers this year for their performances as a result. Now it's the turn of a vivacious young talent Laura Michelle Kelly and Anthony Andrews, the latter making a rare but commanding stage appearance and his first, as far as I can work out, in a musical. (By an interesting coincidence, his Brideshead Revisited co-star, Jeremy Irons, is also starring in a musical, A Little Night Music, at New York City Opera). Though it's still very early in the season, the Society of London Theatres could start engraving their Oliviers now - or at least ensuring their names are on the nominations lists.

Theirs are both wonderfully accomplished, deeply felt performances that, under the direction of Trevor Nunn, dig below the musical comedy surface of this relationship of unequals. The power balance is dramatically shifted between them when Eliza Doolittle claims her independence and Professor Henry Higgins loses his and admits in the yearning soliloquy of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" that she actually means something to him.

But Nunn's production, which as ever is full of social and dramatic detail throughout, gloriously conjures the London milieu of 1910 with Anthony Ward's luxurious designs and Matthew Bourne's ravishing choreography. It is also now newly animated by a supporting cast of one-time leading actors like Stephen Moore, Hannah Gordon and Russ Abbot (as Higgins' sidekick Colonel Pickering, Henry's mother and Eliza's father, respectively), all of them aging powerfully into character parts that they perform characterfully.

To paraphrase Dr Samuel Johnson, when a man is tired of My Fair Lady, he is tired of musicals. It remains a must-see.

- Mark Shenton


NOTE: The following review dates from May 2002 and the second cast from this production.

When a show has undergone a major cast change, it's traditional to expend large portions of any review to subtly moaning that, while the new principals may be adequate (or even good), they don't quite measure up to the originals. Well, I have to admit I didn't see the first cast of My Fair Lady and so have no idea how the current lot truly compare. That said, it's hard for me to imagine how any of them could possibly be bettered - they are all, quite simply, superb.

My Fair Lady has to be one of the very best nights out in town. Alan J Lerner's classic musical, based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, is of course the story of cantankerous professor, Henry Higgins, and his transformation of common flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, into the toast of high society. And Trevor Nunn's direction rubberstamps his reputation as a genius interpreter of musicals - this is as close to perfection as it gets on a London stage.

Alex Jennings - taking over from Jonathan Pryce (a very hard act to follow indeed) and bringing a new boyishness Higgins in the process - is a highly watchable mix of overbearing ogre, spoilt brat and repressed romantic. Given the Jennings' long list of award-winning credits, his impressive acting is hardly surprising. More surprising, particularly considering that this is his musical theatre debut, is his first-class and full-bodied singing voice.

The job of melting the grouchy professor's heart falls to Joanna Riding's Eliza Doolittle, who is also the pawn in a linguistic bet waged between Higgins and his buffoonish but ever-polite friend Colonel Pickering (played with panache by a scene-stealing Malcolm Sinclair). Riding invests Doolittle with all the necessary playfulness, frustration and, after her transformation, elegance to win both Higgins and the audience over completely. Hers is a demanding role, both dramatically and vocally, and Riding does not put a foot wrong.

Elsewhere, Peter Prentice is likeable as young Freddy and Dilys Laye a stalwart Mrs Pearce, while Dennis Waterman continues to shine with distinction as Eliza's wily dustman father. The rest of the ensemble, tight choreography and opulent (but in no way gimmicky) set remain top notch too.

In fact, everything about My Fair Lady oozes quality.

- Daniel Routledge


Note: The following review dates March 2001 and the production's original run at the National Theatre.

When it comes to classic musicals, My Fair Lady is as good as it gets - and Trevor Nunn's production of it is better than it usually gets.

Quite why it needed the safe haven of the subisidised National Theatre, however, is another question, because - not unlike Oklahoma!, the last musical Nunn directed on the South Bank - it is already headed towards the West End after its sold out Lyttelton run. So don't despair if you can't get a ticket. But with the National merely raiding the catalogue of shows that Cameron Mackintosh has previously revived commercially, and in partnership with whom these new productions have been so handsomely done, how long can it be before the theatre turns itself over to Julian Slade's Salad Days?

At least Lerner and Loewe's 1956 show remains the Rolls Royce of Broadway musical theatre's golden age: it is a meticulously crafted, utterly seamless musicalisation of a classic play (Shaw's Pygmalion) that actually improves on its source material. (It's impossible to watch the play anymore without constantly anticipating the musical's song cues).

It's difficult, however, to spring any surprises with it either, nowadays: like the aforementioned Rolls, it gives a smooth, safe, solid ride, at once luxurious and dependable, but also fundamentally unexciting. Nevertheless, in an age of musicals like Notre-Dame de Paris and Napoleon, such virtues are not to be dismissed lightly.

The ceaseless pleasures of hearing this score again are many (and with new orchestrations by William Brohn, much of it comes up as freshly minted, too). One needs merely to be reminded of such song titles as "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and "I Could Have Danced All Night" to bathe in a warm glow.

That isn't dissipated by former EastEnder turned pop star Martine McCutcheon's rendition of either of those songs, even if she is not quite the hoped-for triumph as Eliza Doolittle. In a last minute bit of high drama, the actress succumbed to a dose of the flu the night before the opening and had to miss the show; on press night, she only missed some high notes, which emerged as a little shrill at times.

As the elocution teacher, Henry Higgins, who transforms her from a Covent Garden flower girl into a society duchess, Jonathan Pryce acts with his usual authority, and brings an unusual sympathy to this bombastic part.

Nunn's production also fields a superb ensemble around the star turns, and it's constantly ravishing to the eye with Anthony Ward's realistic sets and stylised costumes. Matthew Bourne, the choreographer of Adventures in Motion Pictures renown, returns to the South Bank, for the first time since he worked behind the counter in the foyer bookshops, to offer a notably equine Ascot Gavotte but elsewhere follows the staging patterns familiar from the film.

All in all, the result is a highly enjoyable evening. Loverly.

Mark Shenton


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