MY FAIR LADY – A Leeds Playhouse-Opera North co-production at Leeds Playhouse Quarry Theatre – June 7th 2024

MY FAIR LADY – A Leeds Playhouse-Opera North co-production at Leeds Playhouse Quarry Theatre – June 7th 2024

As with Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in 2022 My Fair Lady combines the truly exciting musicianship of Opera North’s big, beautiful orchestra and chorus of magnificent actor-singers with a glorious, intricately crafted, iconic score. From playful and comic through to melodious moods of longing and pathos it delights from start to finish thanks to Oliver Rundell’s skillful baton-waving at the unseen players (to us, that is, though not, we assume, to him).

Madeleine Boyd’s set has two levels, visually emphasising the upstairs-downstairs nature of this story of insurmountable social class barriers and the vast gulf between rich and poor. As in George Bernard Shaw’s witty play, Pygmalion, on which the 1938 and 1964 films and 1956 stage musical are based, we’re in Edwardian London. Grey, uneven cobbles, archways, large-wheeled barrows and dim orange lights surround the Mayfair Tavern, a dark-tiled, small-windowed East End pub with central doors and metal staircase at either side. This area is the grimy haunt of vulgar working-class Cockneys like young Eliza Doolittle, who scrapes a living selling flowers to better-offs, and her dustman dad, Alfred. Atop the pub sits a silhouette skyline of buildings, later revealing themselves to be blocks of filing-cabinets at the home of linguist-phonetician Henry Higgins. For those seated full frontal, changing skyscapes and heavy rain appear behind these, a lush garden is later seen through the double doors, and at Ascot, the singing choral heads of race-goers poke through holes on a board, drawn with elegant figures. Alas! The set’s front-biased views mean the full, impressive effects are lost to those not centrally seated (though ungainly trapdoor entrances and exits are not). When the Professor’s trolleys and tables roll out, though, filled with endless quirky, phonographic and xylophonic paraphernalia for phonetic recordings and teachings, they extend far and wide for all to see.

Higgins first encounters Eliza on the dark cobbles as he emerges in top hat from a toff’s night at the opera. Assaulted by her loud, ugly, aggressive, working-class outbursts of vulgarity (deservedly provoked, though he doesn’t see it, by his own upper class bullying abuse and cruel disdain for her) he’s prompted to make a bet with new friend, Colonel Pickering, that, given six months, he could refine this guttersnipe, this insect, this squashed cabbage leaf, this baggage and pass her off as a duchess. Of course, he’d drop her back in the gutter once his wager was won and that would be that.

Katie Bird and John Hopkins captivate throughout as Eliza and Higgins, their explosive clashes springing vividly to life across the stage. Quite rightly, modern-day awareness has us flinch endlessly at Higgins’ misogynistic, class-bashing, mentally abusive, almost physically violent behaviour towards the girl as he teaches/forces her to speak “proper”. In this, though, he demonstrates well the attitudes prevalent in those pre-birth-control days when most women had little or no education, no financial independence, no vote, no say, no choice. Disdained, despised, denigrated and disgustingly ill-treated, like Eliza, they had nowhere to turn.

Convincingly prickly, aggressive and uninhibited at the outset as the loud-mouth Cockney girl, Eliza is beautifully sung and acted and who reveals, too, how soft, gentle and vulnerable she is in Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? Reserving her more overtly operatic soprano tones for when she’s posher, Bird infuses the song with a real longing just to be warm and cosy and loved, and she portrays perfectly Eliza’s progress from unthinking, lash-out loudmouth to thoughtful, dignified, perceptive being. As human guineapig in Higgins’ relentless, heartless experiment, mentally bruised and verbally abused, she pours venom into Just You Wait, delight into The Rain in Spain when she masters her irritable vowels, and joy into I Could Have Danced All Night as she develops into a beauty who’s all poise, etiquette and restraint. Once she sees she no longer fits comfortably into either social class, she brings confident defiance to Without You.

Guest actor Hopkins’ admirable performance pours strong comedy and chaotic sparkle into the role of confirmed bachelor Henry Higgins. That’s just as well since otherwise the man’s a brutish, self-absorbed bully, a boisterous, boorish blunderbuss of tyranny, arrogance, obstinacy and bad temper – rude, boastful, callous, unlistening, unethical, inflexible, narrow-minded. He thinks impeccable elocution, deportment and restrained silence constitute a full education for a woman and that being accepted as upper class is the ultimate goal in life. Yet, in Hymn to Him the disheveled Higgins is so inept at dressing himself, he ends up with his braces atop his suit, a ridiculous, undignified, farcical figure. Though Higgins’ songs deliberately required little when it came to Rex Harrison’s melodic capabilities in the film, they’re a deal more tuneful sung by Hopkins. He imbues Why Can’t the English? I’m an Ordinary Man, You Did It! with great animation and meaning, and his more thoughtful I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face is quite moving, suggesting he’s maybe acquired, at long last, a tiny smidgeon of self-awareness.

Shaw insisted there was no hint of romance between Eliza and Professor Higgins in his play. In this production, with the age gap much reduced from that between Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in the film, a frisson certainly shimmers at times through their explosive relationship, adding further intrigue to the story, though the ending, as ever, remains ambiguous. It’s besotted Freddy, though, who actually declares his love for Eliza, a love so deep he almost swoons just to be anywhere near her. Ahmed Hamad’s rendition of the classic On The Street Where You Live earns great appreciation, but poor Freddy is infatuated more with the thought of being in love than actually being in love so that’s him over and out.

Dean Robinson makes a fine Colonel Pickering, a gentle, charming gentleman who treats Eliza with dignity and shows her the compassion and understanding that Henry should, as does Henry’s mother, warmly portrayed by Miranda Bevin, while efficient housekeeper, Mrs Pearce (Helen Evora) has her kinder moments, too. In the role of Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s feckless father, Richard Mosley-Evans is more a white-bearded, rambling Uncle Albert than a strong, forthright, hard-drinking Stanley Holloway, but his jaunty, jolly songs, A Little Bit of Luck and Get Me To The Church go down a treat. These are great, too, for the excellent, ever busy, ubiquitous, multi-role ensemble of Opera North Chorus members who bring energy to simply choreographed knees-ups and elegance to ballroom dances. Their singing is wonderfully rich and their sparkling comings and goings please at every turn whether as down-at-heel Cockneys, toff opera-goers, lords, ladies, punters, patrons or bevies of engaging, likeable maids and servants.

Excellently acted and fabulously sung all round, this energetic comedy, edged with tragedy and thought-provoking comments on social and gender issues is wrapped around with glorious Lerner and Loewe music, superbly played.

Eileen Caiger Gray