Henry Higgins is a problem. The question facing the creative team behind the London transfer of Bartlett’s Sher’s production of My Fair Lady, which opens at the London Coliseum this week, is what do you do about a lead character whose attitudes to women, to the sacred preservation of language and to poverty are at best dismissive and at worst, openly offensive? One of the greatest stage and screen musicals of all time, the comic extremes of Higgins views, aired frequently throughout the story, are easy to dismiss as being of their time and, even in the context of the narrative, shown to be of step with others. But a contemporary production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s story cannot avoid the conclusion than Higgins is the very epitome of a toxic bachelor and Sher’s team must decide whether he should be rewarded for it.
Last year, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre faced a similar dilemma with its portrayal of Billy Bigelow in Carousel who, in the original score and romanticised Hollywood movie, is able to gain entry to heaven despite repeat acts of domestic abuse. Not so in Timothy Sheader’s production and Billy was given a slightly different kind of ending. Higgins is even more overt in his disdain for other people, and the snobbish superiority of his manner to Eliza – that he would treat a Duchess the same as a flower girl – may give him plenty of humorous lines, but in this entirely faithful adaptation, Sher’s production asks whether Higgins really learns anything about himself in the course of his encounter with Eliza Doolittle and whether his attachment to her is anything more than a personal indulgence.
It has been more than two decades since My Fair Lady was last seen in London in a fateful production that paired Martine McCutcheon with Jonathan Pryce, and the show itself in many ways is exactly the same as it was in 2001 and in 1956. Purists will be delighted that Sher’s production is true to Lerner’s lyrics and book while a full orchestra fills the Coliseum with Loewe’s unparalleled score. From Wouldn’t It Be Lovely to I’m Getting Married in the Morning, I Could Have Danced All Night to On the Street Where you Live, visually and musically, Sher’s production is entirely traditional, retaining the same period setting, full Edwardian costumes and every recognisable line.
The surprise here is in creating a show that is in look, feel and style exactly the My Fair Lady we all know, even if only from the indelible 1964 film, and without changing a single word, making the audience think again about the characters and their behaviour to one another. This is a story that pivots on the choice and pronunciation of language so hearing again Higgins’s repeated use of ‘baggage’, ‘guttersnipe’ and ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ feel uncomfortably different in 2022. This Cinderella story of a young woman’s transformation from ugly duckling to swan becomes mired in Higgins’s problematic insistence that Eliza has no feelings of note, that she has no right to live if she ‘utters such depressing and disgusting sounds’ and that credit for her triumphant appearance at the Embassy Ball is his alone.
Sher presents Higgins exactly as he is, a man who believes women are vague, eager to be married and objects to be dispatched, that they are ‘exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags’ and that men are intellectually and culturally superior. None of this is softened or altered, and although he is a character that audiences have only ever been asked to take semi-seriously in his rants – particularly in Rex Harrison’s charismatic performance – and who is deeply affected by the presence of Eliza in his life, he still curses her intention and scoffs at her liberty until almost the last moment in I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face while still wanting her around to continue to support his lifestyle, locating his slippers and liaising with the housekeeper on his breakfast choices.
What you see in this production is, then, in some ways what we always see, a man of his time and an eager bachelor. Yet, a barely perceptible shift has occurred where inclusion, individuality and class are no longer tightly controlled by white Oxbridge-educated men who determine what is considered an ‘acceptable’ speech pattern and dialect, or the eugenicist undertones that imply one life is more worthy than another. In a subtly cast contemporary light, Higgins’s attitudes are far more damaging and deplorable than their surface comedy suggests. And while Eliza expresses precisely the same sentiment that Willy Russell’s Rita would later experience, that education leaves her in a no man’s land between one class and another, the swan Higgins has created is far less content or at ease with herself than the young flower girl he met in the Covent Garden piazza.
So is Higgins a villain? Well not quite. Although selfish and driven by a Leopold and Loeb feeling of superiority over his fellow men, his motives are reasonably pure and he genuinely believes that what he offers Eliza will improve her life and give her the kind of choices she lacks in her original state. That she feels far more caged after her transformation is an unforeseen outcome of their experiment and his growing feeling for her is testament to a respect that grows between them. Higgins is capable of some change, moving towards a more generous acceptance of the capacity for growth in others than he previously possessed. However, like Billy Bigelow, does Higgins learn or do enough to earn a happy ending? In 1964, George Cukor and Hollywood clearly thought so, in 2022 that is not so clear and in creating a final ending for Eliza and Higgins that weighs-up the balance of morality across the three hours of performance, Sher consults George Bernard Shaw’s original script for Pygmalion.
So while Higgins becomes more ambiguous, Eliza is given greater clarity, with an enlarged spirit of independence and personality that give her far greater agency. When she arrives at Higgins’s door, Eliza is already a woman who has financially supported herself since her father abandoned her years before, who moves without fear around the late night streets of London and is confident in herself. Unafraid to ask for what she wants or to fight back when being maltreated, her quest for self-improvement is presented as a determination to take control of her future and a reflection of the respect with which she wants to be treated. Language, for her, is the tool for that but Eliza retains her savvy natural instincts. It is a shame that Sharif Afifi’s Freddy is played as a buffoon, rather than a credible suitor, throwing away both Lerner and Loewe’s sublime On the Street Where You Live but also the realistic prospect of marriage for Eliza, no one in this production could believe for a second that such a shrewd woman would consider this Freddy as a realistic option.
And while he may not think so, the audience is encouraged to see her as Higgins’s equal from the first, a woman who disregards social convention and the expectation of others as highly as her tutor prizes them. She scowls and scorns him repeatedly during their lessons, standing up to his bullying and refusing to broken by either his methods or his overbearing nature. The more he treats her as a semi-invisible living doll (as Mrs Higgins notes), the more unyielding Eliza becomes and the more determined to succeed, as much to spite him as to work towards her floristry shop aspiration. In Sher’s production, we note that while Eliza’s speech pattern may change, she holds on to a connection to the woman she was six months before, retaining the better part of her courage and self-sufficiency that allows her to face a different kind of future – far more bravely than Higgins does in fact. That instinctual ability to find her own way and to make a final choice that will be of most benefit to herself is an indication of her essential resilience and her intellect, underpinning the notion that the only person who transforms Eliza is Eliza herself.
Amara Okereke is outstanding as Eliza with a vocal that rivals Marnie Nixon. While it would be so easy to play her like Audrey Hepburn, Okereke finds entirely her own beat, exploring Eliza’s multifaceted personality while using both songs and scenes to create her own, distinct version of the character. Her cockney accent is authentically rooted in South London while her transformed voice retains a nicely false note of refinement, slightly over-pronounced, that makes Zoltan Karpathy’s suspicions of her origin more credible. But Okereke’s biggest achievement is to make Eliza feel real, a women plagued by self-doubt and aspiration in equal part, entirely sympathetic, scrappy and determined to forge her own path, and while she accepts help from Higgins, she never needs him or allows herself to rely on him.
Reprising his Lincoln Centre performance, Harry Hadden-Paton is bullish, self-satisfied and commanding as Higgins, a man unused to being challenged, particularly by women who, when he gives them a second thought, expects others to bow to his superior mind and reasoning. Hadden-Paton finds tones of humility in there somewhere, a spark of feeling that offers up the possibility of redemption and prevents Higgins from becoming too flat while delivering the songs with vigour and certainly singing them unlike Rex Harrison. Higgins, of course, never sees himself as a bad man and that is the greatness in Hadden-Patton’s performance, Higgins doesn’t purposefully offer himself up to be judged, that rests entirely with the viewer.
To do all of this within the chocolate box tradition of My Fair Lady is fascinating and Sher’s production applies many of the same staging techniques that his version of To Kill a Mockingbird is using only a few streets away. Michael Yeargen’s set is a series of watercolour flats that drop or are consciously wheeled into place to suggest the façade of Covent Garden, railings and the market scenes while some moveable lampposts and disconnected door frames stand in for Wimpole Street. Broadway often romanticises the classic film musicals and draws on the Technicolor studio production style as its theme – see also An American in Paris. The concept here is semi-fantastical, a heightened version of a London that never existed in which real characters and emotions take place in front of painted scenes visibly wheeled around in choreographed patterns by the actors in a sort of Brechtian escapism.
Like Atticus Finch’s house, Yeargen’s design for Higgins’s home is a block set that both moves in from the back of stage and has the capacity to rotate, giving a multi-room view of his Victorian townhouse that includes the Study / Library with spiral staircase and the hallway where Eliza dreams of Higgins’s death at the hand of the King. Catherine Zuber echoes Cecil Beaton in the costume design, creating a homage to his vision particularly for the stylish Ascot sequence, Eliza’s beautiful ballgown and even nodding to the lines and shape of her leaving Wimpole Street outfit, although Zuber exchanges the dour peach for a hot pink. There are plenty of choices here that pay court to the very specific look that My Fair Lady has and its audience might expect while also introducing some bolder tones that stand out in a large auditorium.
Yet, the size of the space does have its downsides and the pre-sized set blocks and scenarios occasionally looks a little swamped in the Coliseum. With a relatively small ensemble cast, this is most noticeable in the two numbers that really ought to fill the stage. The Ascot scene with only two lines of well dressed aristocrats looks very sparse at first with almost no set to offset the large gap at the back of the stage – not even some silhouetted horses projected across the back wall. A similar issue afflicts the Embassy Ball where only a dozen couples stand to one side in what should be a crowded society event full of whispers and intrigue. Covid safety and budget aside, what should be set piece moments feel a little underpowered compared to the dense decoration of the Higgins residence.
Part of this is a lack of dance incorporated into this interpretation on a sizeable stage made for ballet and opera, which last year was filled to capacity by teenage dance fanatics in Hairspray. My Fair Lady on stage actually has very limited full ensemble choreography until late in the second half when Alfred sings I’m Getting Married in the Morning, and here Sher’s production comes alive with a spectacular performance from Stephen K. Amos, departing from the Stanley Holloway take, to create a colourful pub-based extravaganza filled with can-can dancers, working men and plenty of table-hopping joy. In a sequence that lasts several joyous minutes, Trude Rittmann’s choreography is multi-tonal as Alfred celebrates and mourns his last night of freedom, lighting up the show with an energy slightly lacking from those other big ensemble pieces.
If you want to see a My Fair Lady that feels like a scene for scene remake of the film, then this production will not disappoint, but equally for anyone looking for a more contemporary resonance beneath the surface, then that is certainly here as well. Sher’s re-examination of the show’s central relationship and shifts in the balance of power are enlightening, proving the modern musical doesn’t have to be gritty or necessarily stripped-back to find new meaning.