It’s hard to believe that ‘My Fair Lady’ is rapidly approaching its 60th anniversary. The classic tale, based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play ‘Pygmalion’, hasn’t been seen in London since the National Theatre’s Oliver-winning production in the early 2000s. Director Bartlett Sher’s 2018 Broadway production has now taken up residence at London’s Coliseum, where it plays until late summer. But is the story of plucky Eliza Doolittle’s transformation from common flower girl to sophisticated socialite at the teachings of Professor Henry Higgins still as “loverly” as it once was?
The world has changed massively in the decades since the play and subsequent musical were written, in terms of attitudes towards women and gender equality, and in this regard “My Fair Lady” does show its age. It’s very much a product of its time, and it raises the question of how much life it has left in it before it becomes a museum piece. But viewed within the context of its time, and with Lerner & Loewe’s classic score behind it, there is still a lot to enjoy. Musically it remains a triumph, sounding full and rich, and delivered by a full orchestra. It perhaps struggles to fully fill the cavernous Coliseum auditorium, but it’s still great to hear these songs and melodies given the full orchestral treatment that they deserve.
Amara Okereke’s casting made headlines for her being the first black actress to play Eliza on a professional stage. Initial concerns that this may add an unfortunate level of awkwardness to the white Higgins’ condescending treatment of her are thankfully washed away; Okereke’s Eliza is a feisty, strong woman who holds her own against Higgins (Harry Haddon-Paton, reprising his role from Broadway), and within minutes, you don’t see colour anymore, which is how it should be. It’s clear from the book that Higgins’ disapproval of Eliza is purely based on how she speaks and carries herself, not in her appearance or ethnicity. Okereke’s involvement here is a fine example of colour-blind casting which should hopefully break some casting ground for the future. There is a warmth and strength to her performance, and she is able to find a surprising amount of humour in Eliza’s mannerisms and dialogue. She also sounds great, perhaps not as rich vocally as former famous Eliza’s, but she makes the role her own. Haddon-Paton is the standout here, fully committing to Higgins’ pomposity and being a joy to watch throughout. Far more likeable than Rex Harrison ever was, his delivery of “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” is a highlight. Malcolm Sinclair and Maureen Beattie also give strong support as Colonel Pickering and Mrs Pearce respectively, also helping to add to the humour. Stephen K Amos is far less successful as Alfred Doolittle, missing the opportunity to really land his two numbers which should be crowd pleasers. Sharif Afifi also adds little as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, admittedly stuck in a thankless role (he’s basically a stalker with a nice song).
Michael Yeargan’s set design is impressive, with Higgins’ grand Wimpole Street residence impressively revolving on the Coliseum’s grand stage. It doesn’t quite fill the space, presumably due to restrictions arising from future touring limitations, but it’s a grand sight nonetheless and gives the actors plenty of changing space to move around in. It helps the show to not feel static and stale, which can be a worry with older pieces such as this. However, as is often the trouble with “classic” shows, the show does feel overlong and the pace does flag, particularly in Act 2. Audiences may find themselves quoting Eliza in their heads and wishing the show would “move yer bloomin’….” you know what. It doesn’t help that most of the musical’s stronger songs are in the first half, leaving the latter 75 minutes feeling a bit of a slog.
A solid if overlong production of a classic, ‘My Fair Lady’ can’t help but fall victim to its own now-outdated attitudes, but this production mostly side-steps this with likeable lead performances and a score that make you overlook most of its other shortcomings.
My Fair Lady runs at the London Coliseum until 27th August 2022 with performance run time of 3 hours including interval. https://www.eno.org/whats-on/my-fair-lady/
Reviewer: Rob Bartley
Reviewed: 19th May 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★