Tonight we expected a semi-staged reading of this timeless musical. Instead we got as near as dammit to a fully staged, fully costumed, fully choreographed West End production, one that stage director Shaun Kerrison had somehow crammed into a 10ft gap in front of the orchestra. It was greeted with countless belly laughs and a standing ovation from 5,000 prommers, many of whom seemed slightly baffled that it wasn’t being filmed for broadcast.
Inevitably, it will be compared to the 1964 movie. Anthony Andrews just about pulls off Rex Harrison’s sprechgesang and his irritable, Basil Fawlty-ish air. However, unlike the famously tone-deaf Harrison, Andrews is also able to belt out a melody; and, as an old 80s heartthrob, his treatment of Eliza takes upon a slightly kinkier, Fifty Shades of Henry Higgins touch, leaving the ending even more ambiguous than before.
Eliza Doolittle is played by Irish-born showtunes specialist Annalene Beechey, a terrific singer with a fine feel for comedy, even if her stage cockney sometimes lurches towards the Australian (let’s face it, working-class Londoners haven’t pronounced “Mayfair” as “My Fair” since the Treaty of Versailles). Best of all is Alun Armstrong’s magnificent Alfred Doolittle, a Steptoe-meets-Grandad Trotter comic titan that’s every inch the equal of Stanley Holloway.
If there is a structural weakness with any My Fair Lady production, it’s that the cockneys get all the best numbers. Lerner and Loewe’s songs benefit from a freer, jazzier, more demotic delivery, and the quality suffers slightly as Eliza poshes up in the second half. Still, John Wilson‘s adapted score – which borrows from Andre Previn’s movie arrangements – adds a sparkle to even the most drearily expository songs: the flutes somehow sound cheekier, the brass ruder, the strings zingier.
It seems astonishing that all this work went into a single, one-off Prom. Install this team in any West End or Broadway theatre and they’d clean up.
John Lewis – The Guardian
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