My Fair Lady - 14 April 2001

‘I think they’ve got it’ - The National Theatre have done it again, taken a classic show, put on a traditional production but adding that something extra making it feel fresh and new but at the same time true to the original production design.

My Fair Lady is really more about the transformation of Higgins than of Eliza. We see the physical change in Eliza, her learning how to behave differently but in essentials she is little changed at the end. In Higgins we see a change inside of his values and how he relates to people and his outlook, the Higgins at the end is much changed.

Jonathan Pryce is Higgins, he has captured the essence and character to perfection, from the stampeding Higgins who flattened all in his path without a single thought for their feelings to the man who finally learns a hard lesson in how to treat people but also understanding himself. His reasoning to Eliza as to why she stood stay and take part in the experiment was brilliant and left the Colonel speechless ! With just a look or one word Higgins character was perfectly personified. His loss as Eliza walked out after their final confrontation at his mothers home was wonderfully portrayed yet barely a word was spoken only ‘Mother’ as the final action of this eminent Professor was to turn to his mother in desperation. He almost declares that he cares for Eliza as she tells him all she wanted from him was some kindness and she cares about him but he catches himself before this thought is expressed. Jonathan has the art of sarcasm and wit of Higgins to a tee and in Nicholas Le Provost’s Colonel there is the perfect foil. The rapport they have between them is so natural, the way Higgins looks at the Colonel when he knew exactly where to buy women’s clothes from and the sight of these two ‘confirmed’ bachelors discussing dress designs oblivious to all around them was fabulous. The Colonel trying to explain about Higgins’ girl at the same time as trying to change the topic and side tracking to the opera Aida and some other opera was very funny.

Alexandra Jay is a young Eliza whose transformation is akin to Gigi as from the girl in the study the elegant woman at Ascot is born. Alex is excellent as Eliza, very brash, to the point and confrontational, leaping to conclusion upon conclusion when she first visits Higgins house. She is a darling of the Covent Garden , watched and looked out for by the folk there. She sings the songs well, bringing over character of Eliza and her trials and tribulations. ‘I could have danced all night’ is my favourite from the show and Alex performed it just right. She brought over the feistiness and charm of Eliza and as she danced at the ball with Higgins there was an obvious connection between them and as they laugh together at the end of the show you know that Higgins finally met his match in this girl.

Mark Umbers was very good as Freddy, the young man whose only desire in the world was to woo this young girls, it was his only trial and worry in his life. He believed he loved Eliza for her beauty but had no thought as to who she was inside. His endless love letters must have displayed the thinness of the depth of his feelings. He would pick himself up and start again very quickly.

There was strong support from Dennis Waterman as her ‘ever lovin father’ , he was excellent, playing the role his way and not as a typical Doolittle personified by Stanley Holloway, Caroline Blakison as Mrs Higgins and Patsy Rowlands as Mrs Pearce. The company completed an excellent cast as the many characters throughout the show.

The whole show is very slick with some superb sets and staging. The use of the travelling stage to being sets and people on and off and to give the impression of people moving was very effective, simple but effective. The crowning glory of the sets has to be Higgins house, what a wonderful sight with books and papers stuffed on to shelves and phonographs surrounding the stage and even little things like the birdcage covered at night adds to the show. If one set was perhaps not on par with the rest then it as the Wimpole Street where the perspective on the adjoining house to 27a had a strange perspective which didn’t quite work but one small detraction from a wonderful production

The one element of the staging / direction I particularly liked was the way the split between the scenes were intertwined, as one scene ended and the other came on part of the previous scene could still be going off in the background. As the study scene started Doolittle, Harry and Jamie could be heard in the background singing’ With a little bit of luck’, as the pub came on a solitary phonograph continued it’s journey off stage, the maid scrubbed the floor as the study scene continued although my favourite was after the Embassy Ball back to the house change, as Eliza came into the study two dancers waltzed by her and into the house, it was as though they were the memory of the ball. At the Embassy Ball I particularly liked the way Freddy blundered around the dance floor desperate to speak to Eliza but after many foiled attempts in reverts to the bottle to drown his sorrows and also how Mrs Higgins looked on with pleasure and approval as Henry and Eliza danced together, she understood what was happening already.

Ascot was in mourning for the king but even amongst the black were slight dashes of cover and the jockey in his white and purple contrasted very well with these. The number of people in the scene meant the idea of space and elegance was created..

The dancing in the pub and particularly the dustbin tap dance must have a mention. Matthew Bourne has retained a traditional style of dancing for the production but has added a few ingenious variations which although moves beyond the traditional it is in keeping with the style. Who’d have believed dustbin lids would have such musical talents ! At Ascot the men moved as though they were horses, again simple but effective.

Overall a superb production with Jonathan Pryce the true star of the show. As Mrs Higgin would say ‘Bravo Eliza Bravo’.

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