My Fair Lady

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Published: 19th May, 2017

We didn’t manage to get a program on a busy opening night, but all the information was consistent: this was to be a recreation of the 1956 Broadway production of My Fair Lady, courtesy of the producers and Opera Australia. The choice of the original Eliza, Julie Andrews, as director only served to underline the historic origins of the production, which most people have seen as the 1964  film starring Audrey Hepburn.

The show must be judged therefore in the context of most people’s very fond memories of the tale of the Cockney girl Eliza Doolittle whose chance encounter with Prof Higgins would change more than her voice and her clothes. The show in turn has its origins in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion and still owes much of its dialogue to him. But this is a Lerner and Loewe musical, and it is bound to be judged on primarily on the music, songs such as Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, I Could Have Danced All Night and crucially, in a game changing scene, The Rain In Spain.

To complain that nothing is very different in this play from the productions on film and stage that made it famous all those years ago is therefore quite specious. If it was very different it would have been a failure. But it was not, and therein lay its success. Because a success it was, if judged by the reaction of the audience and one’s own enjoyment. For my part I certainly remembered the film but took my mother as my guest as a commentator from the generation which first saw My Fair Lady. This proved a good move, as she was able to compare cast and production generally with the original, and she was well pleased.

Crucial to the success of the play was something even more important than the music, it was the performances of the two leads: Anna O’Byrne as Eliza Doolittle, and Charles Edwards as Henry Higgins. Both excelled in their own right and as a couple with sexual tension crackling away behind the formality of the discourse. In fact, one of the big surprises for me was the wittiness of the dialogue throughout, more so than I remembered it except for the more famous exchanges. O’Byrne’s facility with her accent and its transformation was impressive and well judged as the play progressed. Just as importantly, she had a strong but sweet voice and she looked the part, whether that part was as a Cockney flower girl or as the elegant young lady she became in the Higgins household. (Interestingly, the “transformed” Eliza had more than a hint of Julie Andrews’ sound in her diction, possibly a product of coaching by the director).

Charles Edwards was an excellent foil for her, with his command of language, especially tone, and complexity in his relationship with Eliza. Edwards was worth importing for this production, as his demeanour embodied the essence of an arrogant English academic (who is nevertheless loveable). The other principals were for the most part equally well cast. As Eliza’s dustman father Reg Livermore appeared more comfortable than most with the singing he had to do, except perhaps for Mark Vincent as the (intentionally) lacklustre Freddy. Tony Llewellyn-Jones as Colonel Pickering, Deidre Rubinstein (Mrs Pearce, the housekeeper) and Robyn Nevin (Higgins’ mother) lent some complexity to their characters, and the gift for dialogue that has made them household names. Ironically, some professional actors were at times outshone by their underlings or those in the crowd, when it came to singing; this was perhaps unsurprising as Opera Australia had apparently provided chorus members for the lesser roles! (It was a welcome discovery that there was a lot of harmony in many songs brought out by the singers and a superior orchestra).

So much for differences. Although specially conceived for this production the set design and costumes were, as one would hope, as impressive as the original. Whether it was Covent Garden market or Higgins’ luxurious home the set worked well and was a pleasure to look at. The standout scene was of course the races at Ascot, with the black-and-white costumes – and particularly the hats – a brilliant realisation of the original concept. Finally, speaking of the famous Ascot scene (and to answer the question most asked of me in this past week): yes, this Eliza did swear – and most convincingly!

Should you go and see My Fair Lady? Of course – unless you’re prepared to wait another 50 or 60 years for as good a production as this.