Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
September 6, 2016

With all the buzz around the 60th anniversary production of Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 Broadway smash hit musical – not the least of which is the admittedly remarkable fact that it is being directed by the original Eliza Doolittle – it’s easy to forget the many merits of the show itself. Of course, the songs are a series of perfectly formed miracles, assembled by some of the greatest craftsmen in their field. The prickly, complex Alan Jay Lerner was a natural to shape the prickly, complex Henry Higgins, a man who turns into flesh and blood before our eyes in a dazzling sequence of character songs. Equally natural was Frederick Loewe’s gift for melody and his way with a period score, his operetta sensibilities finely attuned to the musical mores of Edwardian London. But what really makes My Fair Lady stand head and shoulders above the crowd is its massive, densely argued and, in Julie Andrews’ excellent staging for Opera Australia, thoroughly plumbed book, which rushes along in scintillating dialogue, much of which is by the great George Bernard Shaw.

Shaw himself had several targets in his sights when he wrote Pygmalion in 1913. Looking at it through post-Downton Abbey eyes, you can miss the fact that this was a contemporary play given an up-to-date contemporary setting. When Shaw speaks of class and sex, he speaks of a society that was in ferment with an emergent Labour Party and a militant suffragette movement, not to mention a world war just around the corner. His points, though, are subtle, and shift throughout the play. His argument that the only thing keeping a flower girl in her working-class place is the way she speaks – and therefore the way a class-ridden society will always perceive her – is constantly modified and built upon, but the play is about much more than just that.

Anna O’Byrne

Shaw’s respect and love for the English language is important – and it becomes one of Higgins’ most redeeming features. It is through language the creator will breathe a soul into an inanimate human entity. But if you take a member of the working class – be it the decent, ambitious Eliza or her duplicitous, work-shy, father – and dump them squarely among the ranks of the middle class, what are they expected to do next? If the girl simply moves from selling flowers on the streets to selling flowers behind a counter, is that all the point of this brand new ‘soul’? But Pygmalion is also about mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, men and women, and Andrews’ interpretation of Lerner’s adapted script gives every Shavian polemic its due, while never shying away from the emotional human drama at its core.

There’s a lot of back to basics about Andrews’ ‘recreation’ of the original production. We get Oliver Smith’s original set designs, with some architectural upgrades to help the three-dimensional feel as well as a car (apparently cut from the original for want of backstage space). There’s a lot of old-fashioned painted cloths on display, but the double revolves that famously caused the odd bit of havoc on opening night in New Haven turn out to be a marvellously efficient way of transporting us from the Covent Garden flower market to a Wimpole Street drawing room. Cecil Beaton’s legendary costumes are back too, the famous Ascot scene deservedly getting its own round of applause. Bravely, the director has resisted the temptation to soup up the dance numbers or cut the book. As a result, My Fair Lady returns as the musical play it should be, demanding actors who can act and an audience that can listen. I’m not sure about the latter, but Andrews has hit gold in the dramatic stakes, delivering that rare beast, a musical that would cast its spell whether it had any music or not.

Anna O’Byrne and Alex Jenkins

Heading the outstanding cast is British actor Alex Jennings, reprising a role that earned him an Olivier Award in 2003. His Higgins has deepened over the years from arrogant tyrant to slightly bewildered, prissy academic. Nowadays we would likely consider this misanthrope ‘on the spectrum’. One of Shaw’s keys is when Mrs Higgins refers to her son and Pickering as a “pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll” and Jennings captures compellingly the curiously infantilised aspect of the man. As a theatrical technician, he is second to none, every line considered and connected to build and explore a complex human being. His lead-in to I’m an Ordinary Man reveals no railing misogynist but a fellow who has likely been burned somewhere along the line. His panegyric to the poetry of language really does inspire. The points at which we see his growing feelings for Eliza are beautifully plotted, making Jennings’ Higgins seductively sympathetic at times. The songs are delivered with confidence and finesse, just on the voice enough to prove he has the notes, while relishing the text in a bravura display of Lerner-esque acerbic patter. When it comes, I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face takes us to a place of considerable pathos and loneliness – just as it should.

Anna O’Byrne is her own woman, stepping into the shoes vacated by her famous director

As Eliza Doolittle, Anna O’Byrne is very much her own woman, stepping into the shoes vacated by her rather famous director. As the yowling flower girl she’s excellent at the physical comedy, capturing a pugnacious quality most likely engendered in the character by a bitterly impoverished upbringing and an unreliable drunk for a father. Vocally she’s confident in the lower register required for working-class Eliza –  Just You Wait is a tour de force – neatly developing the sweeter soprano tones that come with elocution and Higgins’ infusion of “soul”. The voice is a little fragile in the middle to upper register – Show Me has its tightrope moments – but honestly that only adds to her appealing vulnerability. There’s the odd timing issue that will come with time – the notorious “move your bloomin’ arse” line goes off half-cocked – but her stilted Ascot dialogue culminating in “what I say is, them that pinched it, done her in” is pitch-perfect.

Anna O’Byrne and Mark Vincent

Veteran musical theatre actor Reg Livermore makes more of the irrepressible Alfred Doolittle than seems decent, his crumpled paper bag of a face and mop of white hair registering every huff and puff. A sprightly 77, you’d never know it as he’s carted around on trolleys and finally carried off at height after I’m Getting Married in the Morning – a textbook lovable cockney routine if ever there was one in Christopher Gattelli’s never overstated choreography. Like Jennings, Livermore embraces the petulant child lurking in each of Shaw’s male characters, and his comic timing is impeccable.

Equally impeccable is Robyn Nevin as Mrs Higgins. A formidable Grande Dame, she and Jennings are of course each other’s tragedies (to paraphrase Wilde). You may wait over an hour for her, but once she arrives you hang on – and applaud – her every bon mot. Tony Llewellyn-Jones’ spluttering Pickering makes the perfect foil to Jennings’ unflappable sangfroid, the two ‘chaps’ making a respectable double act and carrying a great deal of the situational comedy throughout. Less successful is Mark Vincent as Freddy Eynsford-Hill. The character itself is thankless. A victim of Lerner’s cuts to the play, Freddy drifts on and off to sing On the Street Where You Live and not much more. Vincent has a decent tenor voice, but he’s not a natural stage actor and even the song feels a little overthought. Deidre Rubenstein however is an excellent Mrs Pearce, delivering her nuggets of wisdom with warmth and insight, while David Whitney puts in a nice cameo as the oleaginous Zoltan Karpathy, a particularly hairy hound from Budapest he.

Anna O’Byrne, Robyn Nevin and Alex Jenkins

The ensemble is pretty faultless. The costermonger men deliver some nice close harmonies, the Ascot scene rippingly ‘ar-ti-cu-la-ted’. Guy Simpson takes his time with the score, allowing songs to find their natural rhythms and never rushing as can be the modern way with musical revivals. The orchestral sound is fine – and pleasantly not over-amplified – but a word of warning: if you sit towards the front of the auditorium, but close to the sides, the sound comes almost entirely out of speakers leaving you with little acoustical sense of real players in the pit.

Running through to November, with a season announced for Melbourne next year, My Fair Lady should certainly please the traditionalists. But it’s not just a musical theatre history lesson. Add Andrews and her cast, and this staging should also please anyone wanting to see a classic play performed as its creators must have wished it to be. Andrews can rest assured that her much-loved Moss Hart would have approved. I suspect good old George Bernard would too.

My Fair Lady is at Sydney Opera House until November 5. It plays a Melbourne season next year.


Buy a Limelight subscription as a gift