No question, it’s one of the greatest musicals ever written, but My Fair Lady has never been one of my favourites. It’s got a glorious score, and an impeccably well-constructed, unusually literate book, but there’s something slightly uncomfortable about the show’s treatment of its working-class heroine (I have the same difficulties with Pygmalion), and about the central assumption that faking upper-class speech and manners will make Eliza a better person than she is at the beginning of the show (we all know the story, I’m not going to write a synposis here). I also, I’m afraid, have a long-standing aversion to chirpy dancing cockney costermongers, to the extent that if someone starts tap-dancing with their thumbs up I’m liable to break out in a rash. I admire the show very much, but I’ve never quite warmed to it.
That is, until yesterday afternoon, when I saw Daniel Evans‘ glorious revival at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. No, he hasn’t cut the chirpy cockneys, and no, he hasn’t changed a word of the script, and the things that make me slightly uncomfortable are certainly still there. He also never directs his actors to act around the material, which is how, for example, the National Theatre solved the problem of the final scene of Lady in the Dark. Instead, he’s done something far more interesting: via clever casting and an unusually intelligent approach to the text, he’s given us a My Fair Lady in which Eliza, by the end of the show, is every bit Higgins’ equal. This is the only version of My Fair Lady I’ve ever seen, on stage or on film, in which a continuing relationship (marriage) between Higgins and Eliza after the end of the show is not only plausible but believable.
A great deal of credit has to go to his two leads. Dominic West is a little younger than Higgins is usually cast, which helps; he’s also a formidable stage actor with a surprisingly durable singing voice which helps him to provide Higgins’ mostly talk-sung songs with some additional (and very welcome) light and shade. More importantly, West’s Higgins is essentially a slightly spoiled, overgrown public schoolboy, an upper-class intellectual geek who has difficulty relating to anyone other than other upper-class intellectual geeks. There’s a childishness to his petulance that makes him surprisingly appealing; when Eliza walks out, he crumbles, and his “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face” is extremely moving. He’s giving a very, very fine performance.
He’s matched – and surpassed – by Carly Bawden’s extraordinary Eliza. Bawden is equally convincing as cockney guttersnipe and princess, negotiates Loewe’s demanding music with magnificent ease – her rapturous “I Could Have Danced All Night” alone is worth the cost of the ticket and train fare to Sheffield – but she, too, finds something more interesting than usual in her role. As Bawden’s Eliza learns, she grows in stature, to the point where by the end of the show she is every bit Higgins’ equal in intellect, if not in book-learning. When she confronts Higgins after the Embassy ball, she brings real fire to the scene, and she follows through with a blazing “Show Me”. And in the final scene, when Higgins again asks for his slippers, she stands opposite him, not moving, imitating his stance, as if to provoke him into getting up and fetching them himself. This is an Eliza who, from that moment on, is going to give every bit as good as she gets. Bawden is a relative newcomer – though she was also memorably good in Kneehigh’s staging of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg last year – but she’s a name to watch. She has a glorious voice, comic timing that seems to be guided by laser, and enormous presence, and her work here is dazzling. If there’s any justice, this is a star-making performance, and it deserves a far wider audience than a five-week run in Sheffield.
But then, all the performances are terrific, from Anthony Calf’s good-humoured Pickering to Louis Maskell’s gloriously sung Freddy. There’s a cast of twenty-two – huge for a regional production – and they do an impeccably tight job of Alastair Little’s witty choreography. It would have been nice to have more than twelve musicians in the pit, but reduced orchestrations are inevitable in a regional theatre, and these are done tastefully enough. Paul Wills’ deceptively simple set offers only two basic settings – Higgins’ study, and a colonnaded space that can be Covent Garden market, a ballroom, a street, or Mrs. Higgins’ conservatory, depending on how it’s dressed – but the sumptuous costumes and Tim Mitchell’s subtle lighting combine to ensure that this is always a handsome production to look at.
Remarkably, it’s Daniel Evans’ first major musical as director; it won’t be his last, because this is a tremendously assured debut. It’s a difficult show with two formidably difficult central roles, but this My Fair Lady is an absolute triumph.