My Fair Lady

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe
Leeds Playhouse and Opera North
The Quarry, Leeds Playhouse

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Dean Robinson, John Hopkins and Katie Bird in My Fair Lady Credit: Pamela Raith
Katie Bird in My Fair Lady Credit: Pamela Raith
Katie Bird and Ahmed Hamad in My Fair Lady Credit: Pamela Raith
The company of My Fair Lady Credit: Pamela Raith

Any modern stage production of My Fair Lady is a double adaptation. It exists in the wake of not only the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, from which Lerner and Loewe drew their inspiration, but also the famous and much-loved film version, with iconic performances from Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.

Director James Brining’s main-stage production, largely thanks to Madeleine Boyd’s stylish set and costume, gives generous nods to the film without slavish imitation, and in Katie Bird (as Eliza Doolittle) and John Hopkins (as Henry Higgins), the show finds superb incarnations of these challenging roles.

They are challenging not just because of their famous previous incarnations, but also because the musical walks a fine line on gender and class politics, hinging on the likeability or otherwise of the bullying Professor Higgins, the plausibility of any attraction between him and his ‘creation’, Eliza, and our reading of the outcomes for these characters.

Brining’s version does not shy away from the coarser elements of Higgins’s character, and the ironies of his paeans to bachelorhood and maleness, "I’m an Ordinary Man" and "Hymn to Him". Hopkins plays these with (ironic) conviction, not afraid to make himself look ridiculous as the character’s unreconstructed politics are undermined. His rich singing and comic timing are among several highlights of the production.

This is a co-production with Opera North, and the company brings its usual strong ensemble work to bear on the company numbers. Regular chorus member Dean Robinson excels in the supporting role of Colonel Pickering, a sympathetic ear to Higgins who nonetheless voices concern at his treatment of Eliza. Richard Mosley-Evans is a likeable Alfred Doolittle, though he lacks some of the requisite twinkle and some of his singing is under-articulated: he is the only singer whose text I struggled to make out.

The role of Freddy, Eliza’s would-be suitor, tends to be somewhat washed out: a bland but palatable alternative to the fireworks offered by Henry. Ahmed Hamad sparkles in the part, though, delivering "On The Street Where You Live" powerfully and with great charm. The likes of Helen Évora as housekeeper Mrs Pearce, Miranda Bevin as Higgins’s mother and Mark Burghagen as the Hungarian Professor Zoltan Karpathy should also be applauded for committed, confident and slyly humorous performances.

Brining certainly knows how to populate and animate the large space of the Quarry stage, and his direction—along with Lucy Hind’s simple but world-building choreography—makes full use of the splendid Opera North Chorus. Boyd’s set operates across two levels and flexibly shows us the rain-drenched streets of London’s Covent Garden, the pub frequented by Alfred Doolittle, Higgins’s language laboratory and the races at Ascot. This latter, as Eliza faces her first real test, is well-staged and plays the restraint of the upper-class attendees against the excitement of the race to great comic effect.

Oliver Rundell's musical direction leads a note-perfect orchestra through gorgeous arrangements of these classic tunes. The sound is well-balanced and the playing sympathetic to both the rousing chorus numbers such as "Get Me To The Church On Time" and the subtler, varied dynamics of other pieces, such as "I Could Have Danced All Night".

In the potentially thankless task of walking in both Audrey Hepburn’s and Julie Andrews’s footsteps as Eliza Doolittle, Katie Bird shines brightest of all. While the musical itself is weighted in Higgins’s favour, Bird recentres its gravity towards the poor flower seller, with singing balancing exquisitely between the powerful and the delicate. Her elastic facial expressions emphasise the comedy of Eliza’s endless attempts to change her vocal stylings under Higgins’s instruction. And at the climax of the show, passed over by Higgins as an experimental subject rather than a human being, left stranded between social worlds, she shows a blend of vulnerability and anger that is quite moving.

The final beat is ambiguous but certainly does not present us with the reconciliation between Higgins and Eliza—and the concession from Eliza—that Lerner and Loewe’s musical suggests. In this humorous, charming production that nonetheless embraces the moral debate and discomfort of Pygmalion, neither we nor Higgins are let off the hook with a romantic Broadway ending. Highly recommended.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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