Review: My Fair Lady at the Lichfield Garrick

My Fair Lady – the queen of stage musicals!

Lichfield Garrick Main Studio
Tuesday 25 September 2018

Last week I saw All Shook Up at the Garrick, with the music songbook of Elvis Presley and this week was another musical treat for the eyes and ears! My Fair Lady is one of the best known, most respected and most loved of all stage musicals and has played to countless thousands of theatre goers since it was first staged, in Philadelphia, in 1956. With a plot based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, dashing music by Frederick Loewe and pinpoint sharp lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, it is no surprise that it was a huge success on both Broadway and the London stage.

Last night was the opening night of the week-long staging of My Fair Lady by the Lichfield Operatic Society at the Garrick and they provided a truly fitting performance to match the tradition and heritage of this majestic musical.

When I was seven I went to the cinema with my parents and brothers to see the 1964 screen version with the wonderful pairing of Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison as Eliza and Henry Higgins and last night, as I sat in the front row of the theatre, it took me back to that very first viewing, long ago than I care to remember to be honest! The songs were still very fresh in my memory and the images of the ladies and gentlemen in their Edwardian clothes and finery were still very clear. And if a musical can bring back those childhood memories then it must be a winner!

The plot of Lady is very well known, and is the story of a cockney flower-seller, Eliza Doolittle, who meets and becomes involved with Professor Henry Higgins. Higgins is an expert in phonetics (he knows how to talk proper!) and is studying the accents of the people in the west end of London. When he hears Eliza mangling the English language he accepts a challenge from his friend, Colonel Pickering, to transform the ‘guttersnipe’ cockney girl to a charming English rose who will fool the courts of Europe into believing that she is a real princess.

Although she initially rejects his request, Eliza relents and agrees to move into his home so that he can transform her from caterpillar cockney to beautiful butterfly. Higgins is visited by Eliza’s drunken dustbin father, Alfred P Doolittle, who is quite happy to turn his daughter over to the professor’s care for a £5 note.

Higgins does not suffer fools greatly and is frustrated and infuriated at Eliza’s attempts to speak the Queen’s English and is doubly infuriated when Eliza has the temerity to stand up to him and give as good as she gets.

Finally, after weeks of effort, Eliza cracks the plum (marble!) in the mouth code and can now have conversations with the height of London society. Despite some setbacks when her cockney roots betray her outward appearance she becomes comfortable in polite society and befriends Higgins’ mother and is wooed by Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a young socialite.

By now Eliza has begun to fall for the Professor who, despite his lack of empathy and understanding of women, truly believes that he is understanding, compassionate and kind, and doing his best to help and support Eliza.

When Eliza passes her final decorum test Higgins is delighted that his ‘experiment’ has worked and heaps praise upon himself, seemingly ignoring the hard work and effort that Eliza has put in herself, and also ignoring the feelings that she has for him. But this mismatched pair are meant to be together and the course of true love will eventually run true.

The Lichfield Operatic Society provide a fabulous version of this tale of manners, social etiquette, romance, class divide and the battle of the sexes with a lively, colourful, emotional, thought invoking  and funny performance which is spell-binding throughout.

The lead role of Professor Higgins is taken by Richard Poynton, it is a part with an extremely high line count, as well as having several key note songs which means that he is on stage for the majority of the show and he plays this demanding role to perfection. Equally impressive as he shows determination, frustration, humour, vulnerability and sensitivity it is a wonderful performance. At one point he raises an arm towards Eliza in frustration and as Eliza cowers, believing he is going to strike her, the look on Higgins face as he recoils at the very thought he might consider doing that is perfect, a mixture of disgust and shame.

Eliza is played by Vickie Beck, and again is a very challenging role as Eliza has to transform herself from beast to beauty in a plot procedure that lasts months, to an actual stage timeline of 45 minutes. She manages this in a truly convincing style, from street urchin to the queen of high society, so that by the end we, the audience, are also convinced that she is of royal blood. Eliza also has some superbly crafted songs to sing, the truly delightful Wouldn’t it be Loverly, the revenge-tinged menace of Just You Wait and the emotional Without You. But her stand out song is I Could Have Danced All Night, sung with Mrs Pearce and the house maids. It is a truly great vocal performance and the aching and desire of her longing to dance with the ebullient, frustrating, overbearing but loveable professor is etched into every line. As she holds the last notes of the song she also holds the full attention of the audience and with it attracts the loudest applause of the night – a lovely moment and, in my opinion, a moment worth coming to see in its own right.

There is a wonderful script which is funny, sharp and memorable with lots of fantastic lines and there plenty of laughs along the way. Chris Stanley is great fun as my old man’s a dustman Alfred P Doolittle (what does the P stand for??), willing to do anything to protect his daughter unless someone pays him not to, Julia Mallaband as Higgins’ mum has some delicious put down lines as she recognises the pomposity and fallibility of her own son and James Pugh is fantastic as Colonel Pickering. Playing a much older man than himself, he is superb as the stooping, bungling, old soldier in arms who recognises the true nature and beauty of Eliza, he is the perfect foil to the stubborn Professor Higgins. His jowl-wobbling protestations at Higgins’ worst excesses are a joy and there is a lovely sketch with an unseen police officer on the phone, which is good fun.

The supporting cast of Ben Foulds, as foppy Freddie, Sue Morgan as the devoted, but stressed, Mrs Pearce, Patrick Jervis and Dan Arketell as Dustman Doolittle’s boozy mates all perform really well and, as ever with the Operatic Society, the ensemble cast provide sterling work, as you will know by now that I love all the scenes with the entire cast on stage!

The choreography by Jessica Lambert is spot on, especially in the brilliant Get Me to the Church On Time and the Embassy Waltz. The Edwardian costumes are fabulous and glamorous, well done to the wardrobe team of Vanessa Morgan, Suzanne Harris and the Friends of the Society – the costumes at the Ascot Gavotte ensemble at the end of Act One looked amazing!

Superbly directed by Emma Hill and with Musical Direction by David Easto this performance flies along at a lovely pace, with no lull, it is feast for the eyes and ears at every scene. Sitting in the front row I had a great view of the energetic musical director and was interesting to see the interaction between the music and the stage craft, all perfectly timed.

It is difficult to know what is the outstanding element of this show – the music, the storyline, the script, the songs, the lyrics, the dancing, the laughs or the tears. In truth it is just a fantastic production of one of the most significant, popular and loved musicals of all times. The Lichfield Operatic Society treat this musical with the respect that it truly deserves – with enthusiasm, skill, joy, professionalism and dedication. I remember watching Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison at the age of seven and believing in their characters, that they were who they portrayed, and last night I again believed that Vickie and Richard were Eliza and Henry, and that to me, is a real skill, a genuine delight.

The couple sitting next to me last night said that they had seen My Fair Lady many, many  times and I asked them why they had come to see it again – ‘Because it’s a lovely show, a real joy’ they said – I could not have put it better myself!

My Fair Lady by the Lichfield Operatic Society is on until Saturday 29 September with performances starting at 7.30pm nightly, with a matinee on Saturday at 2.40pm.

Tickets priced £19-£21 and available from the Lichfield Garrick box office, ring 01543 412121 or book online at:

https://www.lichfieldgarrick.com/whats-on/musicals/my-fair-lady/2273#

** Photograph by Robert Yardley Photography

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