My Fair Lady takes to the King’s Theatre Edinburgh stage this week (Tuesday 5th to Saturday 9th March) in a production from Southern Light Opera Company. If the words “amateur dramatics” are two that fill your heart with dread and terror, then be prepared to re-adjust your thoughts as this production from SLO is as good (often better) in every area as many professional productions that I have seen over the last few years, and they just got everything right tonight.
My Fair Lady is, as many people will know, a musical based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, but it is probably the 1964 film starring Audrey Hepburn in the title role of the Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle that so many people now identify with (Rex Harrison played Professor Henry Higgins). For me, this production outshines even the film as Rebekah Lansley and John Bruce are just perfect in these two roles, and to add icing to the cake, Rebekah is doing her own singing here. Audrey Hepburn’s songs were voiced over in the film by Marni Nixon (who did perform the role on stage herself too).
We all probably know the story here as Professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, makes a bet with Colonel Hugh Pickering (Alan Hunter) that he can teach flower seller Eliza to speak proper English to a standard high enough to pass her off as a lady in polite society, but that is only part of the bigger picture here. In this story there are also many other layers to the sugar coated main story, and Rebekah Lansley and John Bruce get real depth here into their portrayal of their characters as well as some impressive vocals on the show’s production numbers.
Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins are not easy roles for anyone to perform as they are not only on stage for most of the scenes here, but they are, if handled properly, very complex characters too. Eliza is not a soft and frail woman but one brought up to be tough when required to cope with her life and Henry has many cruel and selfish facets to his personality. Rebekah and John seem to instinctively understand this in their performances and we get some real tension to some of the class issues that this story touches upon as well as delicate touches to an unexpected understanding between the two and possible romance. I can’t actually think of any of Eliza’s songs that Rebekah never got “spot on” and John displayed some real skill on "A Hymn to Him" and "Why Can't the English?". Many of the songs in this production may sound simple to the ear when we hear them, but that is down to the great skill here of the writers as they are playfully working with ever changing keys, timings and phrasing throughout this production. To do “My Fair Lady” properly you need some real skills in your company and Southern Light Opera have that to spare.
Everything is of course not just about Eliza and Henry, and there are some solid performances from Alan Hunter as Colonel Hugh Pickering (resplendent with sideburns) , Averyl Nash as Mrs Higgins, and Keith Kilgore having obvious fun with his role as Alfred P Doolittle and the "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time" production numbers. The unresolved “love interest” role of Freddy is performed by David Bartholomew and his "On the Street Where You Live" makes an interesting mixture of hope and sadness in his character.
My Fair Lady is of course a large stage musical and, here, everyone in the SLO company perform so well together with stage sets (there is a charm to well done painted scenery) , costume design, choreography, lighting and sound all being up to (and so often past) the professional standards that they always aim to meet.
Review by Tom King