Even if you haven’t watched the film or seen it on stage (and there hasn’t been a major London revival in 21 years), you’ll be familiar with its songs, including Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, I Could Have Danced All Night, and On the Street Where You Live, which have found a life beyond the show.
Now, director Bartlett Sher (Oslo, The King and I), whose smash-hit adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is showing just around the corner, brings his Tony-winning 2018 production to London Coliseum, treating post-pandemic London to a night of twinkly escapism, award-worthy central performances and a twee (if American) vision of olde-worlde Britishness.
Jordan Crouch, Tom Ping, Joseph Claus and Tom Liggins with Amara Okereke as Eliza Doolittle. Photo: Marc Brenner
All ruffles, feathers and swooping musical accompaniment – performed here by the English National Opera Orchestra – this Proscenium Arch-staged take on the show is almost as traditional as they come, but Just You Wait… it might have a trick waiting up its puff sleeve.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady follows the story of cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle, who becomes a live-in linguistics experiment for the well-meaning but misogynistic professor Henry Higgins. The professor is hell-bent on making a ‘proper lady’ out of Doolittle, by which he means teaching her to speak like the genteel and fooling his upper-class cronies as to her status at glamorous events. But then feelings get involved (this is a Golden Age musical after all) and Higgins finds himself learning a thing or two from Doolittle.
Framing the production is designer Michael Yeargan’s backdrop of vast, inky skies and silhouetted London landmarks. The outline of the Royal Opera House appears life-sized, dwarfing the Covent Garden flower sellers in the opening scene, and a parade of shop fronts and Victorian lamp-posts glide on and off with ease. Equally agile is the centrepiece of the set: a giant doll’s house take on Higgins’ London home – all spiralling staircases and oak panelling.
The company of My Fair Lady. Photo: Marc Brenner
Catherine Zuber’s costumes come into their own in the racecourse scene (though those who loved her Olivier-winning can-can skirts in Moulin Rouge! The Musical get a glimmer of those too in the show’s one chorus number, Get Me to the Church on Time). Carrying over the lilac palette from the film, she tops her gaggle of socialites with towering feather hats and they pose, striking and silhouetted, against the blue sky. Marc Salzberg’s sound design excels here too, sending the horses thundering around the back of the auditorium while the spectators follow the race with their eyes.
Amara Okereke is quickly becoming a top talent of London's musical theatre scene, with recent roles in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s The Boy Friend and the Almeida’s Spring Awakening also under her belt. Eliza is a musically challenging lead – in the movie, Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice was famously dubbed by American soprano and ghost singer Marni Nixon – but Okereke pulls off the songs with polished perfection, while making Eliza’s petulance endearing, if a bit growly.
Sher directs Okereke and Harry Hadden-Paton, who also played Higgins in the Lincoln Center original and who brings an eccentric energy to the pedantic professor, to ham up their disdain for one another, and this unfortunately prevents a tenderness building between them, which in turn makes his later pining for her unbelievable.
Charlotte Kennedy, Rebekah Lowings, Maureen Beattie as Mrs Pearce, Harry Hadden-Paton as Professor Henry Higgins, Amara Okereke as Eliza Doolittle and Malcolm Sinclair as Colonel Pickering. Photo: Marc Brenner
The production also boasts brief appearances from Vanessa Redgrave, brilliant but underused in the role of Mrs Higgins, who brings gruff mischief to the part.
Sher’s My Fair Lady plays it safe until the final throes, carefully preserving the original musical and transplanting it as a period piece onto the contemporary stage. But its denouement pays homage to Shaw's far more empowering conclusion, and whether you like it or not, it’s thrilling to watch.
Sometimes a bold, brassy musical, traditional and neatly performed, is just what’s called for. Last year, that production was Kathleen Marshall’s Anything Goes (returning to the Barbican in June), this year, it’s Sher’s My Fair Lady.
My Fair Lady is running at London Coliseum from Saturday 7 May - Saturday 27 August. Click here to book.
|My Fair Lady, London Coliseum review
|London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, , London , WC2N 4ES | MAP
|Covent Garden (underground)
07 May 22 – 27 Aug 22, Performances at 7pm with additional 2pm matinees
|Click here for more information and to book