Expectations can work in many ways and it’s interesting to realise the extent to which we can be influenced by what we have just seen. Recently I was at the Young Vic for Oklahoma! I’d heard reports of it but nothing had prepared me for the radical transformation of the theatre and the startling reinterpretation of the musical that gave it a new lease of life and modern relevance. Even after a couple of weeks the impact of that production was still beating in my veins when I arrived at the London Coliseum for Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady by English National Opera, directed by Bartlett Sher.
less impressive than the sum of its parts
I wondered what might have been done to this masterpiece since it was last seen in the West End twenty-one years ago. To the satisfaction of traditionalists and purists, the answer is almost nothing. In fairness, it doesn't lend itself to being adapted, radically altered or given a change of emphasis: it is what it is and that is a portrait of its time.
The big breakthrough comes in the casting. Amara Okereke won Best Actress in a Musical at the Stage Debut Awards 2018 for her performance of Cosette in Les Misérables aged twenty-two. She has a string of other credits playing major roles in musicals and is described by Tatler as ‘the new face of British theatre’. In My Fair Lady, she plays the female lead, Eliza Doolittle, the young Cockney flower seller whom the distinguished professor of linguistics Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton) discovers in the market and determines to transform into a ‘proper lady’ able to take her place in society. She has the looks, can be scrubbed up, which she is in an amusing shower scene, and be dressed in fine clothes, which is also easily arranged. What stands in her way is how she speaks, because in society you are judged as soon as you open your mouth.
It would be presumptuous to say how much of a challenge the accents presented to the cast but their natural voices indicate the work they probably undertook under the manifestly successful tutelage of dialect coach Edda Sharp. Okereke was born in North Tyneside but grew up in Leeds and in conversation she retains some distinctive yet mellow regional vowel sounds. Her parents, both doctors, grew up in Nigeria, which makes for a neat link to Stephen K Amos who plays her father, Alfred P. Doolittle. His parents came to London from Nigeria in the 1960s and he grew up in various places south of the river. His speaking voice retains only the mildest hint of both influences. In the show they each belt out the scripted cockney, but while Amos has to maintain it throughout, Okereke has to manage the transition to elegant received pronunciation which she does very effectively. Both actors rise to the occasion in some of the most famous songs in the to found in a musical.
One assumes that the accent required of Professor Higgins was no issue for
Harry Frederick Gerard Hadden-Paton who was born at Westminster Hospital into landed gentry, the son of a former cavalry officer; his mother being the daughter of a brigadier and his godmother Sarah, Duchess of York. He oozes confidence in the role, commands those around him, relishes his bachelor status, is unmercifully demanding and is contemptuous of even his mother’s criticisms. Talking of whom, it would be amiss not to mention that Mrs Higgins is played by Dame Vanessa Redgrave, now aged eighty-five. Applauded before she utters a word it gives the greatest joy to see her relishing this cameo role, despairing of her son and being carefully escorted amonst the guests at the Embassy ball. Malcolm Sinclair gives a distinguished, old-school performance as Higgins’ fellow dialectologist Colonel Pickering which is yet another delight, along with Maureen Beattie’s stern and dry-witted interpretation of Mrs Pearce. She runs the house which is on a spectacular revolve with a beautifully designed wooden spiral staircase leading to the upper level bookshelves and a door where they descend to another room. The rotations are entertainment in themselves; a triumph for set designer Michael Yeargan.
Costumes are always one of the most outstanding feature of My Fair Lady and Catherine Zuber does not disappoint in this production, following in the footsteps of Cecil Beaton with grandiose Ascot outfits with enormous hats and exquisite ball gowns. The street clothes are equally impressive as are the uniforms of the domestic staff, and the bright red can-can skirts come as a dashing surprise in Get me to the Church on Time, another fine example of Christopher Gattelli’s precise choreography that is apparent in all the set pieces.
With so many aspects of this production to celebrate, it’s surprising that it comes over as less impressive than the sum of its parts. The components are all there, including the superb ENO Orchestra under Gareth Valentine. Director Bartlett Sher’s re-interpreted ending in a style that seems out of keeping with the rest of the show doesn’t help, leaving an air of mystification. That aside, it is all very predictable and true to the original, which is perhaps what many will appreciate.