My Fair Lady at Bristol Hippodrome

THERE are just a handful of musicals which, like great actors, dominate the stage the moment they appear, standing head and shoulders above the rest of the herd. My Fair Lady, along with Oklahoma and Show Boat, is such a musical.

No one-hit-wonder this show, a big success when first produced, but rarely seen afterwards. When was the last time you saw Charlie Girl, which had an initial run of 2,202 performances when it was first presented at the Adelphi Theatre.

Like a good wine, My Fair Lady has matured over the 67 years since it was first produced on Broadway, and, unless badly presented and performed, is almost guaranteed to be a success.

Under the distinct guiding hand of director Bartlett Sher this, without throwing out the baby with the bath water, is no slavish copy of the traditional presentation of the show. He rattles off the first couple of scenes, set on a revolve which allows them to seamlessly move from one location to another at speed, at such a pace that the characters barely have time to establish themselves before the action has moved on.

Add to this the fact that he lets Michael D Xavier’s Professor Henry Higgins indulge in far more physical humour than is usual, a challenge he readily and successfully accepts, and you begin to wonder how big a fan the director is of George Bernard Shaw’s wonderful dialogue, as interpreted by Allan Jay Lerner. Having proved his ability as a humorous mime artist, Xavier shows that he can handle the more serious side of the story in the famous slipper scene and final thoughts about Eliza in I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.

Charlotte Kennedy is not the most convincing cockney flower girl you have ever seen, with the result that the change to refined young lady is less marked that usual. But from the beginning this is an Eliza with real backbone, showing genuine passion in I Could have Danced All Night, and the strength to stand up to anyone in Show Me and Without You. When she returns to Wimpole Street at the end you have the feeling that, for all Higgins’ self-assurance, it is on her terms and not his.

Fitting into this story of Edwardian male dominated society its values and prejudices, are a group of people we now think of as stereotypes, but in the hands of skilful players become real people. Eliza’s drunken dustman father Alfred P Doolittle (a wise moralist without realising it) has two show-stopping numbers (With a Little Bit of Luck and Get Me to the Church on Time) only a handful of dialogue, but some of the best lines in the show. This is a dream role for any actor. Adam Woodyatt, who has spent the last 38 years lost in the streets around Albert Square, emerges into the theatrical sunlight to grab these chances greedily with both hands.

Without a solo song and, for the most part, acting as a feed to others, Colonel Pickering’s is a thankless role, and it takes an actor with quiet authority like John Middleton to make a success of it. You also need a personable young man (Tom Liggins), with a good tenor voice for On the Street Where you Live, to prevent Freddy Eynsford Hill becoming a weak bore. There’s a sturdy no-nonsense Mrs Pearce (Lesley Garrett) unfortunately without a solo vocal spot, and an elegant Mrs Higgins, duly supplied by Heather Jackson.

A high-quality ensemble handled the ballroom and Ascot scenes in fine style, but it would have been nice to have had a greater number on view, and a grander staircase for them to make their entrance to the ball.

My Fair Lady is set in a period of elegance, and when the first British production of the show opened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 30th April1958 it was still a time when audiences dressed up to go to the theatre, so the audience vied with those on stage, dressed in Cecil Beaton’s magnificent costumes.

With due respect for those gathered at the Bristol Hippodrome, who followed the dictates of present day fashion, few of them challenged the lovely, mainly pastel shades costumes designed for this production by Catherine Zuber.
The productions continues at the Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 25th February before moving on to Birmingham and Manchester to complete its 2023 tour.


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