My Fair Lady: Opera North at Leeds Playhouse Until 29 June

The most familiar production of Lerner and Loewe’s abidingly popular My Fair Lady is the Warner Brothers’ film adaptation from 1964.

Though any theatrical version cannot hope to match a sophisticated visual creation from an established Californian film studio, upstaging the vocal shortcomings from croaky crooners such as Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway and Wilfred Hyde-White should be an easy matter for our City’s very own Opera North.

John Hopkins as Professor Henry Higgins

Frederick Loewe’s memorable score does present some interesting reversed musical challenges for the cast. Faced, for example, with providing the first Professor Higgins, the self-proclaimed musically-inept Rex Harrison, with songs to sing in the original 1956 Broadway show, Loewe resorted to declamatory, half-spoken numbers reliant on success through acting, rather than vocal skills. The one cast principal for whom the composer could engage genuine lyrical expression was the then unknown Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle, yet, infamously, she was replaced on film by Audrey Hepburn, whose singing voice necessitated over-dubbing by Mami Nixon.

Katie Bird as Eliza Dolittle with Tom Smith, Satriya Krisna, Paul Gibson and Simon Grange

Here, the opening flourish of the Overture brings to life Madeleine Boyd‘s statically-versatile set, an evening at Covent Garden – it will be adapted, with clever minimalism, as a Tottenham Court Road tenement, Higgins’ sitting room and phonetics laboratory, an Ascot racecourse enclosure, Wimpole Street, an embassy ballroom and a country house garden – where the intermingling patrons from the public house, flower market and Royal Opera remain as immiscible as oil and water, separating on the rigid dividing lines of English social class. This was the narrative upon which George Bernard Shaw based his pithy 1913 play, Pygmalion, the immediate source material for all subsequent dramatic interpretations.

Richard Mosley-Evans (centre) with Nicholas Butterfield and Tim Ochala-Greenough
Richard Mosley-Evans as Alfred Doolittle

Richard Mosley-Evans, as Eliza’s boozy father, Alfred Doolittle, has the cheeky-chappy charm of a likeable Cockney chancer. Though not as strong a stage presence as Stanley Holloway, he has a vastly superior singing voice and his two big numbers, “With A Little Bit Of Luck” and “Get Me To The Church On Time” were well characterised and carried off with true showmanship, brilliantly choreographed with the chorus citizenry.

Dean Robinson as Colonel Pickering, John Hopkins as Henry Higgins and Katie Bird as Eliza Dolittle

John Hopkins‘ Professor Henry Higgins seems to struggle at times to break free from the vocal confines imposed by Rex Harrison’s musical limitations, an exasperated incendiary itching to burst into song. However, he scores heavily in bringing fresh insight and empathy to the lesser-known “Why Can’t The English?”, “I’m An Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn To Him”. As a teacher ‘raising’ Eliza to pass for a Duchess, he is a ruthless taskmaster, riddled with class and misogynistic bigotry, but even his granite-hearted demeanour softens in “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”, an ultimately rather touching realisation that his bachelor days are near closure.

Thankfully, Wilfred Hyde-White never had to sing for a living, but Dean Robinson‘s Colonel Pickering absorbs his character’s gentle, diplomatic manner with harsh words of restraint to Higgins’ coaching excesses and invaluable encouragement for poor, harassed Eliza. His inebriatedly-triumphant “You Did It”, written as little more than broken melodic fragments, and delivered whilst juggling a cocktail glass and discarded clothing, is one of the evening’s strongest performances.

Katie Bird as Eliza Doolittle

It is to the Eliza Doolittle of Katie Bird, transfigured from downtrodden feral Cockney waif to the serene epitome of high society that the night’s plaudits must go. It must be a great comfort professionally to know that it took the combined talents of Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn to do what she achieves alone. The speculative “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”, angry “Just You Wait”, frustrated “Show Me”, slowly-awakening “The Rain In Spain” and the warm afterglow of “I Could Have Danced All Night” were all brought off with delightful aplomb.

Miranda Bevin, Ahmed Hamad and Molly Barker

Ahmed Hamad gave us Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s splendidly memorable “On The Street Where You Live”, not once but twice, only just failing to make the final reckoning in the lady’s affections this time, one senses.

The Company

The chorus’ street scenes and Ascot Gavotte were boisterous and regal as required and the orchestra, under Oliver Rundell’s sympathetic and expert direction, seemed to relish the change of location from unseen orchestral pit to unseen elevated screen.

Sung in English, without surtitles, but with signing.

Further performances:

7 p.m.
08, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19*, 20, 21, 22, 26, 28, 29 June
13, 15, 20, 22, 27, 29 June
* Audio Described

Tickets here.

Photography by Pamela Raith. Main image: Katie Bird as Elia Dolittle with Ahmed Hamad as Freddy Eynsford-Hill.

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