“Men are so decent, such regular chaps”
‘Tis a truth that ought to be universally acknowledged that some of the best musicals in Britain are being produced outside of London. Places like Chichester Festival Theatre and Leicester Curve are regularly coming up with the goods, but one of the most reliable of regional theatres has been Sheffield’s Crucible and under Daniel Evans’ stewardship, their Christmas shows have become absolute must-sees. Last year’s Company was sensational, the year before Me and My Girl blew me away and this year, Lerner and Loewe’s all-time classic My Fair Lady gets a long awaited revival and it is a show I have never seen before on stage.
One of the lovely things about seeing well-known songs in their original context is that it can refocus the lyrical meaning. For me this was most apparent in the utterly gorgeous rendition of 'I Could Have Danced All Night' by Carly Bawden - rather than the grand set-piece I think I was expecting, it’s an understated exhalation of wonderment at the evening just passed and Bawden is gorgeous in it. The large-scale numbers do come though: 'Get Me To The Church On Time' is delivered with the highly charismatic Martyn Ellis at the front and soon turns into a cracking fest of tap-dancing; 'With A Little Bit of Luck' has a subtler but no less impressive appeal; and 'Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’s' hopeful charm had me at ‘ello.
Paul Wills’ set is just glorious, a revolving rear wall switches between the book-dominated, professorial bachelor pad of Higgins’ study and a stunning pavilion which somehow manages to serve as all the other locations more effectively through Tim Mitchell’s superb lighting design. This frees up much of the thrust stage’s floor space for Alistair David’s choreography to play out, which is definitely strong yet not always truly inspired as it occasionally feels a little traditional where a fresh take might have offered more of a lift.
And it was hard to shake the feeling that the second half takes a long time to get where it is going. It could probably have benefitted from a little trimming as the book stretches out a little thinly and it struck me that poor old Freddie gets rather short shrift as a curiously under-developed character. Then of course there’s the sexual politics. This production does well to address this by making West’s Higgins very much a product of his cloistered educational upbringing, his attitudes are as much to do with class than gender and, I thought, unknowing rather than overtly malicious and the sustained final beat of the show suggests that whatever happens next, it will be far from plain sailing.
West makes an appealing Higgins, his enthusiasm for the task in hand palpable, even as its blinkered unfeelingness threatens to derail the whole experiment, and his speak-singing voice perfectly passable. Carly Bawden genuinely is excellent as Eliza though, a proper star-making performance which builds on the work she has been doing in more daring shows like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Pippin.
And as we’re coming to expect from Sheffield now, the supporting cast is excellent. The aforementioned Ellis is brilliant as Eliza’s father Alfred, whose circumstances change almost as much as his daughter’s; Anthony Calf’s Colonel Pickering is a model of public-schoolboy Englishness, as warmly enchanted with Eliza as anyone; Nicola Sloane’s starched Mrs Pearce is always a lovely presence and Richenda Carey sparkles as Higgins’ mother, a woman fully equipped in the ways of man-management, especially that of her stubborn son.
The first half of this production is sheer musical theatre heaven: the hit rate of the show is just sensational and Nigel Lilley’s band sounds wonderful throughout. It is perhaps not unsurprising that it doesn’t quite carry the same momentum over through the second half, but we’re talking about dropping from a 5 star to a 4 and a half star rating if I did such things. Some might call this a guilty pleasure but for me, there is no guilt at all – just proudly unashamed joy that Sheffield Theatres and Daniel Evans have done it once again. Book now.
Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 26th January 2013