A huge show returns to the West End as My Fair Lady takes up a season at the London Coliseum ahead of a UK tour. Directed by Bartlett Sher, this new production first premiered at Lincoln Center in 2018 where it won critical acclaim and multiple Tony awards. Can it enjoy the same success this side of the Atlantic?
Telling the story of Eliza Doolittle, a young Cockney flower seller who meets Henry Higgins - a linguistics professor who is determined to transform her into a “proper lady”. An adaptation of Pygmalion, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady first premiered on Broadway in 1958 before making its West End debut in 1958. Having been revived multiple times since and adapted into a huge 1964 film starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, it may surprise you to learn that I have never seen it before in any form – stage or screen. That may feel like a sin for such a big theatre fan and reviewer but I have well and truly righted that wrong this week – just be aware in this review, I have nothing to compare it to so have gone in fairly blind (though I did know more of the songs than I realised).
Taking on such an iconic role like Eliza can’t be easy, but Amara Okereke rises to the occasion in a truly spellbinding performance. Having wowed audiences in Spring Awakening and Les Miserables, Amara again shows what a remarkable talent she is as she charms her fellow cast members and the audience with a note-perfect performance. With beautiful vocals and fantastic acting, Amara is a total joy to watch in what is one of the best performances I have witnessed so far this year.
Harry Hadden-Paton reprises his performance as Henry Higgins, which he previously played in New York. He relishes in playing the deeply unlikeable character, treading the fine line of making the audience hate him for the nasty comments he makes while still truly appreciating the intricacies of his performance. He forms a formidable double act with Malcolm Sinclair, on top form as Colonel Pickering and providing a much needed bit of heart and kindness in some of the more uncomfortable scenes.
Maureen Beattie is a standout as Mrs Pearce while the legendary Dame Vanessa Redgrave is wonderful to watch as Mrs Higgins. Stephen K Amos plays Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle – a great actor in his own right (as his recent appearance in My Night With Reg confirms), he never quite captures the magic of the character in this performance, feeling disappointingly underwhelming in his portrayal. Another highlight comes from Sharif Afifi as the sweet natured Freddie – while his stage time may be limited, he creates a memorable impression with a beautiful rendition of ‘On The Street Where You Live’.
Even if you haven’t seen the show before, you will surely be accustomed to many of the songs in My Fair Lady. Lerner and Loewe’s songs are timeless, with classics including ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’ and ‘The Rain In Spain’ an absolute joy to witness expertly performed on stage. ‘Get Me To The Church On Time’ providing a rousing number which thankfully made use of the otherwise underused ensemble, while Amara’s rendition of the classic ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ providing the vocal highlight of the evening. With arrangements from Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J.Lang, 36 musicians from the English National Operas Orchestra lift these score to breath-taking heights.
The Coliseum is a huge space to fill, and this production of My Fair Lady doesn’t quite fill it. While the main set piece of Higgins house, designed by Michael Yeargan, is fantastically detailed, other set pieces are noticeably wobbly which creates an extremely uneven visual. The costumes from Catherine Zuber are particularly stunning, with me holding my breath to see what iconic look Eliza was going to appear in next. Brilliant choreography from Christopher Gattelli gives the show the sense of grandeur it deserves, while the whole piece was beautifully lit by Donald Holder.
This production is not without its flaws. Overly long with some pacing issues, particularly in the first act, with some uneven performances throughout. Higgins treats Eliza so appallingly, It is hard to feel any sympathy for him when he declares his feelings at the shows climax. While this has been updated in contrast to previous versions, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of discomfort at the whole relationship between the pair. While the staging is beautiful at times, inconsistent at others, it does often feel like a case of style over substance.
These flaws are not enough to take away from what a mostly glorious show this really is. While there is the feeling this production never quite meets the brilliant levels it aspires towards, the flawless way the action is played out on stage, its classic songbook and a truly sensational performance from Amara Okereke are more than enough to ensure this is a proper lovely evening at the theatre.
My Fair Lady plays at the London Coliseum until August 27th 2022. Tickets from https://www.eno.org/whats-on/my-fair-lady