Thursday, July 25

My Fair Lady – Leeds Playhouse

For many My Fair Lady is the ultimate big screen version of a musical, but famously the vocals of one of the leading actors was overdubbed and the other talked his way through the whole thing.

This Leeds Playhouse co-production with Opera North offers a return to the original hit musical that featured a young Julie Andrews, and here both leads are great singers who do full justice to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s classic score packed with showstoppers.

My Fair Lady is based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that took its inspiration from a Greek myth where a sculptor fell in love with one of his creations. Lerner’s book turns it into a fable where an arrogant phonetician Henry Higgins takes on a bet he can turn any woman into a lady, so he plucks Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle from the gutter to test his theory. Higgins is a misogynist manchild, and his pet project proves to have her own mind much to his dismay before belatedly realising something important about his appalling attitude to women and who Eliza really is.

Director James Brining has correctly resisted the temptation to modernise, so Madeleine Boyd’s clever set places us in Edwardian upper and lower class London, and he doesn’t soften the often old fashioned and sometimes violent attitude to women displayed by Higgins and his middle class world. As you might expect from Shaw there is plenty of class politics as the newly genteel Eliza becomes marooned between classes, which happens to so many of us even today.

Photo: Pamela Raith

What elevates this well paced and often witty production is the power of the singing especially Opera North soprano Katie Bird as Eliza. It’s easy to forget that opera singers are also solid actors, and Bird not only deftly navigates the accent changes, but gives Eliza a dignity and poise that is much more than the lessons Higgins has ruthlessly drummed into her. When she hits the opening notes to a sublime Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and I Could Have Danced All Night is full of wonder and joy.

John Hopkins is the most experienced actor onstage bringing all his stage and TV chops to Higgins, and despite his playful reading of the role never shies away from his childish egocentric behaviour, tracing his character’s baby steps towards redemption as it’s not clear at the end if he has really changed. Hopkins is often hemmed in by Loewe’s score which encourages speaking your way through the tunes rather than singing, but his wider range than Rex Harrison offers much more depth on a feisty You Did It, and his wistful I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face is full of pathos.

Another old hand Dean Robinson is great fun and has real chemistry with both leads as the decent Colonel Pickering who is Elia’s greatest ally, and his contribution to You Did It is of the highest order. Helen Evora offered a subtle anchor on the chaos of Higgins life as housekeeper Mrs Pearce.

Fans of the movie shouldn’t come along expecting the opulence of the silver screen as the set and costumes are more of a muted palette, and the way Brining and Boyd have dealt with the tricky Ascot scene certainly divided opinion in the bar. Lucy Hind’s choreography is rightly simple as the cast are not trained dancers, but they are game during a fun group rendition of the iconic Get Me to the Church on Time. Richard Mosley-Evans as Alfred Dolittle doesn’t quite capture his amorality, but when the Opera North chorus join together something magical happens as their clear voices ring round this large auditorium making the most of their company’s orchestra under Oliver Rundell.

At times My Fair Lady is problematic for modern audiences, but this intelligent revival is never afraid to explore the darkness and pain lurking underneath some of the great show tunes ever written performed by a group of top class opera singers who are clearly loving doing something different.

My Fair Lady is at Leeds Playhouse until Saturday 29th June. To book 0113 2137700 or www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 7th June 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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