My Fair Lady – Edinburgh Playhouse

Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Larner

Music by Frederick Loewe

Directed by Bartlett Sher

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Twinkling in the moonlight, this festooned production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s comforting and classical musical gala draws out the festive spirit with a deeply engaging night at the Edinburgh Playhouse. Traversing through a stylistic view of Edwardian London, sailing between well-loved song pieces of the genre, Bartlett Sher’s revived tour of My Fair Lady attempts to contemporise the musical and atone for its shortcomings.

Renowned for its songs, most famously with the 1964 film starring the one and only Audrey Hepburn, Sterling Holloway, and master of the original Broadway production Rex Harrison. This musical paradigm based around George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion finds the puppeteering hands of Professor Henry Higgins pulling the strings of a young Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, attempting to teach her ‘correct’ command of the English language. As accustomed to the genre, despite their differences, something stirs amidst the cynicism and disagreements.

Charlotte Kennedy, as Eliza Doolittle, has an immediate stage presence which sets the precedence of the entire production’s class and skill. The commonplace ‘Cabbage Leaf’, as she is so affectionately known by Michael D. Xavier’s Higgins, has a voice which fills the Playhouse auditorium and is best utilised for Lerner and Loewe’s solo numbers, mainly when the set-dressings themselves take a step back and allow Kennedy the opportunity to flourish without distraction. Elbows out, strong-bodied and yet vulnerable, Kennedy carries Eliza’s emotions and personality with as much thought and dedication as her voice – steadily emerging and shaping the story and making this both Eliza’s story and her ability to drive the narrative – where usually this is down to Higgins.

A fop, tactless, and likely voting blue, Xavier’s Henry Higgins’ has an eccentric, almost combustive energy as the arrogant and down-right misogynistic Professor Henry Higgins – the man who ‘makes’ a lady out of ‘guttersnipe’ Eliza. Under Sher’s direction, Xavier recognises the satirical nature of which Higgin’s is now performed; Rex Harrison’s sternness and pomp survive but are no longer the defining nature of the character. By the time we come to the closing piece, I’ve Grown Accustomed, the expressive comedy hints at the realisation Xavier carries with the role and makes the conclusion of this iteration of the tale an even more deserving sting for the out-of-touch Higgins. Balanced on a line as thin as the side of a farthing between cartoonish and foppish – and every moment of it is tremendously successful.

Surrounding the pair are a capable and enjoyable cast of ensemble roles: notably Eastenders’ Adam Woodyatt as Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle, Heather Jackson’s razor-sharp Mrs Higgins, John Middleton’s sympathetic Colonel Pickering and stage-legend Lesley Garrett as Mrs Pearce. Garrett, limited by the character’s limited vocal role, manages to make a distinct impression when able to sing and is a wonder to behold and pulls focus with gentle ease. Boisterous, entertaining, and making tremendous use of Michael Yeargan’s stage design, Woodyatt whips around the chorus to full effect – stirring up all the stuffiness which has proceeded and offering a break into the more sombre moments of the narrative – receiving an extended appreciative applaud from the audience for his thoroughly enjoyable Get Me to The Church on Time. 

What a set to be careening around, which sometimes pushes the maximalist aesthetic: other times a distinctly surprisingly minimalist visage. And where forced perspective aids the streets of London’s dimension and depth, Higgin’s townhouse is a fully rotating set-piece to enable the cast an opportunity to fleet around, chasing one another or offering a sense of momentum for numbers where emotions run high, Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man and Garrett and the Servant’s Chorus being prime examples.

One thing far from minimalist, however, is Catherine Zuber’s costume choice, which elevates Eliza from flower girl to aristocracy and then settles to a middle-ground of pastels and clean blocks of colour. It also offers Middleton’s delightfully charming and sympathetic Pickering a chance to join in on the fun, complete with a smoking jacket. It certainly adds to the lavishness of the entire show and facilitates the necessity of the more stripped-back solo moments where the set allows the vocals, and the gowns, to do the talking.

Kennedy, Xavier, and Sher capture the callous reality of the story beautifully, magnified by the musicality of it all, elevating the emotions, and swaying audiences to Eliza’s side. Most influential are the lyrics and score, Sher’s production takes the bookending of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’ and frames the show around these two distinct moments in Eliza’s life; one of who she is, the other of who she has become. And in doing so, My Fair Lady is almost a flawlessly conceived staging which retains the unblemished magic but teases out the various flaws it possessed in satirical stabs at misogyny and class – but it just falls short. 

A shaft of light and a blustering medley of the score awaits as the finale takes a contemporary arc, seemingly as an apology for the treatment of Eliza’s gentrification throughout the years. And whilst it’s a welcome addition – it’s a touch too late. Had additional elements also faced such alterations, or a tighter threading of the eventual turn been more evident throughout the show, then the conclusion would have a significant impact rather than a quick tilted head of confusion. Whilst it perfectly preserves the misogynistic elements (the removal of which would cause a whole host of other issues), the decision to stagger these into satire, whilst retaining the brutal language held against Eliza can’t settle as tightly as it ought.

Pervading today, where the infections of modesty and judgement may appear synonymous with the Edwardian period of the production – one glance around contemporary British culture showcases evidence of its persistence.

My Fair Lady remains an utterly captivating musical, which channels a distinctly festive charm throughout. It’s shimmering, it’s splendid, and yes – it’s loverly. The ideal musical piece retains its elegance and gutsy charm, even all these years later, and while not entirely fending off its dusted attitudes, challenges them with minor revisions to flesh out its prestige and beautiful staging. So, there’s only one thing left to do to ring out 2022: get me to the Playhouse on time. 

It’s Shimmering, It’s Splendid, It’s Loverly.

My Fair Lady runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse until January 7th.

Tickets for which may be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Marc Brenner

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