Having emerged from Cinderella at the Lyceum after the matinee, which Lady Duncansby pronounced as quite the best pantomime she’d ever seen, and which was certainly “up there” as far as I was concerned, we wondered if our evening treat of My Fair Lady tickets at the Crucible would be eclipsed. There was no need for us to worry.
This was the third time I’ve seen My Fair Lady. This was one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite shows and I learned the songs at her knee to the accompaniment of a soundtrack maxi-single of the original London production by Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. I first saw it in 1979 at the Adelphi Theatre with Tony Britton as Higgins and Liz Robertson (Mrs Alan Jay Lerner) as Eliza. Dame Anna Neagle played Mrs Higgins. The notable thing about this production was, if I remember rightly, that the costumes were based on those designed by Cecil Beaton and used in the film, so it was certainly a glamorous event. The second time was in 2002 when Mrs Chrisparkle accompanied me to my favourite theatre, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (always give it its full name) to the production that famously starred Martine McCutcheon and in which famously she rarely appeared. Actually we saw Alex Jennings and Joanna Riding in the main roles and they were excellent. It was during a very hot summer and the theatre’s air conditioning had packed up; I remember we were all issued with paper “My Fair Lady” fans in attempt to keep 2,300 people from passing out.
So having seen two big, meaty, chunky productions on big stages, it would be very interesting to see it done on the large but nevertheless comparatively intimate stage of the Crucible. I’d seen a tweet a couple of weeks earlier by Daniel Evans, Artistic Director of the Crucible and director of My Fair Lady, where he couldn’t believe his eyes that every single subsequent performance of My Fair Lady (bar one) was sold out. Having seen the show, I’m not surprised. This is one of the most engaging, communicative productions you could possibly imagine.
It all starts before you’ve even taken your seat. Enter the auditorium and the sight of Covent Garden’s arches takes your breath away. The stage is filled with flower girls and costermongers, all doing their damnedest to make an honest bob, encouraging the people in Rows A and B to buy their wares, and despairing when no one seems to have any change on them. You’ve been won over before it’s even started. Incidentally, we sat in the middle of Row C and they must be the best seats in the house.
What comes across is the perfect combination of a great show, great songs, a great cast in a great production. I know that sounds simplistic and lacking critical teeth, but that’s basically the whole show in a nutshell. Every second is a pleasure; every song, every dance routine, every conversational exchange are there to make you wallow in delight. This may not have the Cecil Beaton costumes – the ladies are in shades of cream, ivory and beige; a toffs’ uniform, I suppose – but that allows the quality of the book and music to shine through.
Higgins, that spoilt chauvinist par excellence, is played to perfection by Dominic West, who gets the just right amount of bombast, vanity, charisma and – when you don’t normally see it – vulnerability. I would say he was probably the least bullying and barking Higgins I’ve seen, which makes the character more interesting. When he realises what a complete fool he’s been at the end, as he’s grown accustomed to her face, this Higgins produces actual tears; the first time I’ve ever really felt that Higgins really regrets what he’s done. When he’s reunited with Eliza, he does a brilliant failed-attempted cover-up of his emotions, which is absolutely perfect. It’s an extremely realistic presentation of the behaviour of a spoilt man, and it couldn’t be more believable.
Carly Bawden, who was very good in the Menier’s Pippin last year, really comes into her own as Eliza. Hers is the perfect transformation from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, with some fantastically well performed songs that she takes on with relish. Her “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” was heart-warming and felt very genuine – and was superbly supported by the backing dancers to give it an extra oomph. “Just You Wait” and “Show Me” were delivered with great attack, “The Rain In Spain” with humour and terrific musicality, but her big moment was “I Could Have Danced All Night” which was just superb. The embodiment of irrepressible girlish excitement, it was sung exquisitely and the sheer exuberance of it created sustained applause of real appreciation. Stand Out Moment No 1.
Anthony Calf plays Pickering with enormous decency, and with genuine disapproval for Higgins when he goes too far with badgering Eliza. It’s a rather passive role where more things happen around you than you actually do yourself, so it’s vital that his reactions to what’s going on are genuine and entertaining; a very enjoyable performance. Nicola Sloane’s Mrs Pearce is delightfully long-suffering and her starchy but growing affection for Eliza is very well expressed. Another relatively minor role but beautifully played was Richenda Carey as Mrs Higgins. At Ascot, she plays host as Miss Doolittle gets her first outing into society, and is splendidly disapproving of her son but kind to Eliza, and the whole scene is done magnificently. Miss Bawden’s wonderful delivery of “what is wrong with that young man, I bet I got it right” and “them as pinched it, done her in” is memorably hilarious. Towards the end of the show when it is with Mrs Higgins that Eliza seeks sanctuary, Richenda Carey’s withering looks to Mr West speak more than words ever could. An excellent performance, and one that won her huge applause at curtain call.
I never normally respond much to the role of Alfred Doolittle, as I always feel it’s a bit over-the-top and lacks some credibility in comparison with the rest of the show, although the Dowager Mrs C always adored the character. I’ve changed my mind! Martyn Ellis has made me reconsider my previous snobbishness. He is genuinely funny – he brings all the character’s sneaky idle deviousness to the forefront – and he’s quite a nifty mover too for a man his size! His two set-piece musical numbers both worked really well, but for sheer theatrical exhilaration, the whole rendition of “Get Me To The Church On Time” almost leaves you speechless. A great dance routine, that unexpectedly turns into tap, and performed with such spirit, still gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. Stand Out Moment No 2.
The other surprising – perhaps – and revelatory performance came from Louis Maskell as Freddy, with “On The Street Where You Live”. Always one of my favourite songs, since I can’t remember when, it’s quite easy to sing it as a gentle, loving mellifluous number, all pretty and tuneful. This performance is quite different. It’s like someone has finally listened to what the words are actually saying in the song and he’s acting them; and meaning it. Mr Maskell has taken his big number and made a real showstopper out of it. Stand Out Moment No 3.
The support from the ensemble is absolutely first rate and the production owes a huge debt to their talent and commitment. In particular I thought Doolittle’s pals Harry and Jamie – Chris Bennett and Carl Sanderson – gave him perfect support and Emily Goodenough and Nick Butcher shone in all their scenes. Alistair David’s choreography was splendid throughout, and put Mrs C and I in mind of some of Matthew Bourne’s best dance movement creations. Oh, and the Ascot Gavotte is just fantastic.
No question this will be the benchmark for future productions. It would be a crime if it didn’t transfer or at least tour. One of those shows that remind you you’re alive. Unhesitatingly recommended.