My Fair Lady, Coliseum, London
Heaps of energy, great casting, the excellence of the songs and music, a free cheap seat upgrade to a much better seat — but really I am here for the hats!
A Lincoln Center transfer — the production does some things well, but reduces other characters. But the hats! Cheekily you can also order flowers in the in-foyer flower shop, thus achieving Eliza’s initial dream…or perhaps proving Bernard Shaw’s mocking class and capitalism play.
Some of the satire of the play has been stuffed back into the musical, especially in the ending — Eliza keeps her hard won self-respect. Amara Okereke as Eliza is able to play both working class woman wanting to improve her prospects, neglected and robbed by her slacker father and as socially ‘improved’ soprano. Her dream of lovely better things isn’t twee, but heart-felt: born of a tough, hard working, vulnerable community, and she hints at the class distinctions as a working class flower seller could easily be ‘confused’ as a prostitute by the uncaring middle and upper classes. Her alarm at Higgins refusing to pay for a flower and notes being made a lurking man into a notebook is very real. She comes to Higgins to buy English lessons and some social graces to work herself into a shop position; Higgins finds a project for his theories of language. There are also heaps of class and cultural snobbery in here too, which grate (and they’re meant to). But this is an Eliza who fights back.
Harry Hadden-Paton plays a snobbish, self satisfied part, convinced of his rightness and his way and of his ‘making’ Eliza. He can also do more than speak-sing, he can sing a bit, and even waltz! Colonel Pickering has lost his kindness; in this production they seem determined to make him a wet, a closet drag queen or homosexual and diminish his voice of reason and kindness. He seems more to go along with Higgins cultural tyranny, eating tea and cake, until Eliza ‘gets’ it — in the film he is much more on Eliza’s side and her ally against Higgins’ excesses. He only comes into his own when Eliza is lost — seeking out government contacts to retrieve her.
Again, Stephen K Amos as Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle — I’m not sure that he worked either. The pub scenes were a bit Mary Poppins land and he never quite convinced, apart from when fleecing Eliza for more pub money. His eponymous ‘I’m Getting Married In the Morning’ was really vulgar, losing any sense of historic context by having his mates all gussied up in drag; more Moulin Rouge than working class pub. The ‘love is love’ narrative here was intrusive, and perhaps more Stephen K Amos than Alfred Doolittle, missing the point of ‘girls come and kiss me’ when they were his beardy mates in can can skirts. Or is this the new irony to go with the new slang?
But Maureen Beattie was a fantastic Mrs Higgins (pleasing Higgins by keeping her Scottish accent under control!) and Sharif Afifi brought some life to Freddie, laughing at Eliza’s ‘new slang’ and romantically seeking to bring her flowers, charmed by Eliza as well as the street where she lives. I was also fortunate to see Vanessa Redgrave as Higgins kindly and protective aunt.
Overall there are some really funny moments — the following of the horses at the races with a total lack of reaction and sound until Eliza’s infamous pronouncement….Eliza’s shuffling in constricting new clothes at Higgin’s aunt’s tea and mimicking whatever is said to her in meeting and greeting, somewhat stuck when she doesn’t get a greeting. The gin story! and her feistiness when ignored by Higgins and Pickering in her moment of triumph, which has become all about them. Eliza suggests that class isn’t just about behaviours and speech, but mindset — she no longer fits in either class comfortably. Best of all was Professor Higgins house — a revolving dolls house set which allowed Eliza to rampage through it dreaming of what she would do to Higgins in revenge or his servants to sing about ‘poor Professor Higgins’ round it, (as well as some serious flirting with the policeman by the cook taking place).
Quibbles aside — the hats are epic; the costumes beautiful; but the ballroom scene could be stronger, as could the clippedness of the Ascot accents. Eliza shimmers delightfully and escapes well — though I think Freddie would be quicker to pick up the bags she is flinging about. It’s interesting how Eliza’s true accent comes back in these moments of anger. The music and singing is beautiful for the most part, and it’s fun (though cringeworthy) when poor Eliza’s small talk over tea is just what she’s learnt (rain in Spain, hurricanes hardly ever happening etc)…