My Fair Lady

Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe
Sunderland Empire and touring
(2006)

The two faces of Eliza Doolittle

In some ways My Fair Lady is an oddity among the musicals of its time, partially because it avoids the sentimentality which was inherent in the genre, partially because of the intellectual nature of its theme (thanks, to a large extent, to its original, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, but also to Lerner's own inclinations), and partially because of its unresolved (or at least ambivalent) ending. And where else in the music theatre canon do we have the big romantic number ("The Street Where You Live") given, not to one of the main protagonists, but to a minor drippy character who fades from the scene before the end?

It's a very complex piece, with all kinds of themes (language, relationships, morality, the place of women being just a few of them) and deserves an appropriate production style which should not attempt to force it into the Broadway/West End mould. It is appropriate, then, that this production originates from the National Theatre and that its director, Trevor Nunn, had huge experience of theatrical classics before coming (with Cats in 1981) to music theatre. Appropriate, too, is the fact that the choreography is by Matthew Bourne, one of the most distinctive and imaginative choreographers working today - and who also has a history with the National Theatre, which first presented his Play Without Words.

Like the original Henry Higgins, Rex Harrison, Chriostopher Cazenove is not a singer but an actor, for in this part the ability to act is far more important than reaching the right notes. Indeed Cazenove does go somewhat flat in the final notes of some verses, but it doesn't matter in the least: in fact, it adds something of an endearing quality to the portrayal of a man who is so wrapped up in his intellectual pursuits - and, in particular, proving that he can turn a flower-girl into a duchess - that he is totally lost in the world of relationships (even, indeed, the relationship with his own mother!). The conversational style of his songs and his occasional off-key delivery make the audience warm to him. Rex Harrison is a hard act to follow, but Cazenove does it!

The difficulty with the part of Eliza is finding the right level. In both flower-girl and society lady guises, she is so close to caricature that the actress has to find the human sub-text beneath the stereotype (and, to be honest, behind the words). Amy Nuttall succeeds admirably, especially coming into her own after her success at the Ambassador's Ball.

Colonel Pickering is played by the ever-reliable Stephen Moore whose performance I enjoyed much more than that of Wilfred Hyde-White (who, to me, always played himself) in the film. His concern for Eliza, eclipsed momentarily by the joy of success at the ball, always rang true.

What I had not expected was the restrained (one might even call it underplayed) performance by Gareth Hale as Alfred P Doolittle. He hit just the right note: big enough to be a real "character" but without going over the top, something which my previous experience of his work (all, it has to be said, on television) had led me to expect. He brings out the selfishness of the character which lurks beneath the humour.

The supporting characters (including Judith Paris as Mrs Higgins, Stephen Carlile as Freddy Eynesford-Hill and Romy Baskerville as Mrs Pearce) were impeccable and, as I find myself saying every time I review a musical, the quality of the chorus work is very high indeed.

Matthew Bourne's choreography is, where appropriate, very witty. His twists and turns on the "Lambeth Walk" in the cockney scenes and the hilarious horsey movement language of the "Ascot Gavotte" had me laughing out loud.

It is a superb production. Catch it if you can!

"My Fair Lady" plays in Sunderland until 27th May and then goes on to Woking, Milton Keynes, Southampton and Cardiff.

Sheila Connor reviewed this production in Guildford and Kevin Catchpole in Southampton.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan