MY FAIR LADY

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _19th MAR.

March 10, 2023

images © Marc Brenner.

This particular writer, it has to be admitted, has proven form for delicately prodding at the hornet’s nest that is being critical of ‘classic’ revivals. The cherished, musical gooeyness of Rodgers and Hammerstein have been the most recent – and regular – recipients to this ire. Sumptuous, melodically splendid though their scores may be, in many cases, timeless their tales are not. Whether it’s the sobering suddenness of South Pacific’s jilt into racial intolerance midway through, or the creeping sense that the otherwise decadent tour of The King & I realises its central ‘romance’ is far too misogynist and reductive to really be celebrated, we’re seeing plenty of existential reasons behind why ‘they don’t make them like they used to’.

It draws a potential cross-hair all over this most recent revisit to Lerner & Loewe’s beloved My Fair Lady, then. First bursting onto the stage in the mid-fifties, a decade before its iconic Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn Oscar-gobbling Hollywood adaptation, this musical jaunt through Shaw’s Pygmalion suggests plenty of warning signs, in being a story which essentially turns an impoverished young girl into the project for an older, eccentric phonetics professor. The title alone can easily conjure up echoes of the era’s faintly-sexist female objectification and ‘prettification’, in a manner more belonging to, say, a Harry Enfield sketch today.

With this mountain of potential misfires set against it, how refreshing it is then, to find in this touring reprise of My Fair Lady an expertly-pitched rejig that shakes off any such gripes or misgivings, and delivers a breezily upbeat and regularly funny evening of musical delight, whilst still finding its voice and purpose in these post-#metoo times.

Fundamentally, it does this courtesy of a splendid cast, and by mostly not taking itself too seriously throughout. Yet still, when it comes to circling the issues of potential mistreatment and belittlement of its heroine, bolts on a bolder and more audacious streak for its Eliza.

‘With a little bit of luck’, and a whole lotta’ talent…: My Fair Lady’s arrival marks a return to the Hippodrome stage for local leading lady, Charlotte Kennedy (pictured above). Kennedy traind in Performance and Production Arts at Stratford-upon-Avon College, including projects which saw her perform at the Hippodrome whilst she studied. Kennedy has since gone on to star in major West End shows such as Les Misérables, and now taking on the mantle of the iconic ‘Eliza Dolittle’ in this touring production of My Fair Lady.

Speaking of whom, this current tour is a coronation for the talented Charlotte Kennedy. Her early ‘cockerney’ incarnation is suitably brash, abrasive and possessing of perhaps a little earthier grit and reality, given her lot. The transformation from flower seller of the hoi polloi to hobnobbing with aristocracy is winningly charted – particularly via an infectiously funny trip to the races, which allows Kennedy to really showcase her comedic chops. It’s a vibrant, winning lead turn, with gorgeous, crystalline vocals that really shine in Kennedy’s higher, nigh-operatic register.

“There are dashes of modern Doctor Who‘s madcap energy, glimpses of Crawford, and even a soupçon of Cleese-ian mania in there as this fussy, proper, slightly problematic pomposity…”

She’s handsomely met by stage veteran Michael D. Xavier, whose Henry Higgins – the professor whom tasks himself with the challenge of transforming Eliza – is an absolute treat. Xavier is a masterful and comforting presence on stage, and injects his nutty professor with a veritable kaleidoscope of animated Britishness. There are dashes of modern Doctor Who‘s madcap energy, glimpses of Crawford, and even a soupçon of Cleese-ian mania in there as this fussy, proper, slightly problematic pomposity, but really it’s Xavier’s triumph. That he manages to keep the audience completely on side with a character who could very easily be, well, a pig, is testimony to not only Xavier’s charisma on stage, but also how well-pitched this return to Lady is. No moments of minor Hammerstein horror, here.

‘With a little bit of luck’, and a whole lotta’ talent…: My Fair Lady’s arrival marks a return to the Hippodrome stage for local leading lady, Charlotte Kennedy (pictured above). Kennedy traind in Performance and Production Arts at Stratford-upon-Avon College, including projects which saw her perform at the Hippodrome whilst she studied. Kennedy has since gone on to star in major West End shows such as Les Misérables, and now taking on the mantle of the iconic ‘Eliza Dolittle’ in this touring production of My Fair Lady.

Eastenders legend Adam Woodyatt is plenty of fun as Eliza’s freeloading tippler of a father, and gets to have a blast with a game ensemble during the show’s biggest and most go-getting number, ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’. Fellow soap star, Emmerdale’s John Middleton, bounces off of Xavier and Kennedy with vim as the kindlier Colonel Pickering, whilst Lesley Garrett is a reliable presence in returning to the role of housekeeper Mrs Pearce – even if the role feels like a slight underplay of Garrett’s talents.

Finally, Tom Liggins makes the absolute most of his small number of scenes as besotted Freddy Eynsford-Hill, including belting out not one, but two, roof-raising takes on that other old favourite, ‘On The Street Where You Live’.

Catherine Zuber’s sumptuous costumes are practically characters in and of themselves, as are Michael Yeargan’s intuitively transportive sets. It all looks, feels and moves fluidly and elegantly (not to mention, expensively). Flats wheel around on stage to zip you through the backstreets of London’s West End, whilst the rotating, multi-layered drawings rooms, hallways and mezzanined labyrinths of the Higgins homestead are an ergonomic wonder to take in.

“…a big, colourful show, but never one that devolves into feeling loud, noisy or overwrought.”

For a show that essentially pivots around the power play between its two central characters, Bartlett Sher’s revisit somehow pulls off the admirable balancing act of feeling both intimate and light, yet high-budget and substantial at once. It’s a big, colourful show, but never one that devolves into feeling loud, noisy or overwrought. Mercifully, neither Sher, nor choreographer Christopher Gattelli try to over-egg the pudding here, in, say, dialling the set pieces up to eleven.

And, with a splendid cast, just the right amount of colour, carnations and theatrical polish, not to mention an enviable roster of instantly hummable show-tunes, there’s simply no need.

Here is a ‘loverly’ show, through and through, perfectly executed and, perhaps most impressively of all, one that wins its audience over quickly, keeps them on side throughout, and still isn’t afraid to inject some modernity and no-nonsense assuredness to the tail end of its abso-bloomin’-lutely loverly tale, to boot.

Winningly performed and classily staged, this is a delightful bouquet of a revival. A benchmark in honouring a true classic, whilst still affording it some contemporary sensibilities. Abso-bloomin’-lutely recommended.

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