- Finian Hackett
My Fair Lady review: Tepid revival of a musical theatre classic
The swelling overture of My Fair Lady first graced the Broadway stage back in 1956, starring a young Julie Andrews and the well known Rex Harrison. Since then, My Fair Lady has become one of the most beloved musicals of all time. With multiple productions in the West End, on Broadway and across the globe (as well as a film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn), audiences can never get enough of the rags to riches story of Eliza Doolittle and her teacher Professor Henry Higgins
The latest revival hitting the London stage is a transfer of the successful Lincoln Center production from 2018. The ten-time Tony-nominated revival starred Harry Hadden-Paton as Higgins (a role he has recreated over here in London) and Lauren Ambrose as Eliza (with Laura Benanti taking over later in the run). You even had Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs Higgins! This is the first time the show has been seen in the West End in over 20 years, the last time starring Jonathan Pryce and the controversial casting of Martine McCutcheon as Eliza.
Now I have to be honest, My Fair Lady has never been my favourite show but given that this production had SUCH a good reception in the US, I gave it a go.
The true standout performances are from the shows leading characters. Amara Okereke is a joyous Eliza. Great comic timing, silky soprano vocals and just wonderful stage presence make her character as charming as ever. Harry Hadden-Paton shows us why he received a Tony nomination for Higgins. Assertive, dismissive yet somewhat vulnerable, his work is a joy to watch on stage.
Other notable mentions go to Malcolm Sinclair as the loveable Pickering, Maureen Beattie as a witty Mrs Pearce (think Mrs Hughes in Downton ) and Sharif Afifi as the somewhat stalkerish Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Dame Vanessa Redgrave appears as Mrs Higgins. At the age of 85, Redgrave is frail and no matter how big her hat may be, it couldn't hide the fact she looked somewhat lost on the vast stage of the Coliseum. The large ensemble are fantastic throughout, even if they have little to do for big chunks of the show.
The Coliseum stage is enhanced by the gorgeous costumes created by Catherine Zuber (Moulin Rouge!, The Light in the Piazza ). Period dresses to die for, and the Ascot hats deserve their own show. Michael Yeargan's set is less exciting that the vibrant costumes. A stunning rotating house is the centerpiece for the majority of the show, with other scenes never quite living up to that spectacle.
Bartlett Sherr, the show's director, has a history of taking classic musicals and producing glorious revivals (look at South Pacific and The King and I ). He tries to work his magic here but honestly, it was all a little unembellished. Nothing truly exciting or 'different'.
The main issue with My Fair Lady is that it's LONG and by long I mean 3 hours (with a 20-minute interval). The script has many, many moments that could be cut down (just don't take away any of the melodious Lerner & Loewe score) but for some reason, it has never been trimmed.
The London Coliseum is also way too big for this production. The theatre seats 2,359 people - over 1,300 more people than the Vivian Beaumont where this production played on Broadway. The distance between the audience and the stage creates such a divide and you feel very detached from the experience. It also means you struggle to hear a large majority of the action on stage, a big issue on the night I attended. The Coliseum was not made for big Broadway musicals, and that became very apparent.
I really can see why people love My Fair Lady and it's one of the golden age shows that has truly kept its audience for decades, For some reason, I'm just not a fan. Is it the slightly misogynistic tone to the whole thing? Is it the fact that apart from the two leads, the other characters are all pretty uninteresting? Is it that it has an extremely unsatisfying ending? I'm not sure.
It was an enjoyable night at the theatre, just a little bit too long and altogether a bit too simple.
Photos by Marc Brenner