MY FAIR LADY AT THE ARTS THEATRE
Is there a musical as magical as My Fair Lady? Sixty years on from its rapturously received West End début, the overture’s opening bars touch deep layers of nostalgia. Who can listen to ‘On the Street where you live’ without beaming from ear to ear? The score is now grafted onto our national psyche, part of being British like singing Jerusalem – which is strange since its authors are the two American songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe whose natural habitat was far from the fog of Edwardian London. Over the space and time from 50s New York they managed to present the capital - its East End Poverty and West End snobbery - with uncanny authenticity. Even the Cockney humour in the songs feels like the real thing - no Dick van Dyke jokes around the cheerful lowlife stoicism in this timeless musical.
The inspiration for the entire shebang comes from one of Britain’s most austere philosophers - playwright, activist , vegan, and campaigning socialist, Irishman George Bernard Shaw. His was the original play, Pygmalion, written in 1912. In it he castigated the oppressive English class system, trashed the idea of women as airhead inferiors (some of Shaw’s closest friends were prominent forceful women, the most striking - Mrs. Patrick Campbell - played Eliza in the first production). It does help to know how ferocious was Shaw’s criticism of the status quo - and how much Henry Higgins is a parody of the archetypal Englishman of his day as much as a cynical projection of Shaw himself. The froth of ‘My Fair Lady’ has often obscured the mordant message within, that class is a trap and sexism a sham.
It was only when Lerner and Loewe realized what many adaptors had failed to see, (including Rogers and Hammerstein) that to stick as closely to Shaw’s original script as possible was the key to its adaptation for a musical. “All we had to do was to add what Shaw had happening offstage”.
Last night’s Cambridge Operatic Society production at the Arts Theatre explored the score with skill – along with the undertones of the play’s message and meaning. And its performers offered versions of familiar favourites with their own individual bravura.
The characters are already well known. Professor Higgins meets harum-scarum flower seller Eliza Doolittle outside the Opera House and takes on a bet with a fellow linguistic expert Colonel Pickering that he can pass her off as a duchess in six months, using his unique phonetic speech method. Eleanor Bogie’s Eliza first appears a poor candidate for improvement, under her large battered straw hat, wailing with ear-piercing shrieks whenever she’s outraged. It is no plot giveaway to say she turns into a shimmering vision of Audrey Hepburn inspired elegance in time for the all-important test, an appearance at an Embassy Ball. But if her speaking voice is a struggle, this Eliza’s singing is so sublime you think she might well ditch the lessons and communicate in her glorious musical warm soprano tones. The same cannot be said of the toffs, Henry Higgins (Jeremy Warbrick) and Colonel Pickering (Lake Falconer) who never really sing at all much, but are nonetheless masters of the musical structure in the score. In fact “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ a musical disquisition from the Professor is brilliantly done, and allows the lyrics to emerge with all their wry irony. The two actors play stalwarts of Edwardian male values (and let’s not forget 1950s post-war conservatism) with some brilliant touches, determined to show their way is the only way, and women are a puzzle hardly worth tangling with.
At the other end of the social scale is Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, a coalman. Easy to overdo the bibulous layabout side of Alfie and turn him into a cliché – but Ian James is not tempted to present a caricature of a boozing working man. Shaw would have loved his easy-going self-aware intelligence and James has a singing voice that would have thrilled Frederick Loewe. ‘I’m getting married in the morning’ turns into a brilliantly choreographed ensemble piece and his “With a little bit of Luck’ complete with dancing children, athletic working women who cartwheel with exuberance , is a real show stopper that deserves the ovation they didn’t get.
The alternative male in the story is Freddie Eynsford-Hill played by Sam Fuller. He has the song of the show as he lurks outside Eliza’s house – he has fallen for the goddess she has become – and he reprises ‘On the street where you live’ with touching subtlety. Deejay Latchuman as Higgins’ deadly enemy intent on unmasking Eliza as a fraud is brilliantly oleaginous, and Jamie and Harry as the sidemen in every dramatic scene rendered by Lucas Elkin and William Hale are convincingly superb.
“Mrs. Pearce, you’re a woman!” barks Professor Higgins at his housekeeper and Samantha Abbasi presides over the entire Wimpole Street drama with proper feminine common sense and a dose of protective outrage when it’s needed.
Brilliant sets, wonderful orchestra, lovely dancing, what’s really not to adore about this gorgeous production of a classic from 1950s American musical theatre – it might have been made in New York but the inspiration was born in these islands, from an alien Irish wordsmith with something to say. The marvel is that it still feels one hundred per cent genuine.
The age-old tale of transformation of woman began in Ancient Greece and the myth of Pygmalion, the man who took a beautiful statue and conjured her into life. From Pretty Woman to Educating Rita, it’s been reprised and is still an absorbing story that tells us more about men than the women they worked on .