Sitting in the audience before the performance of My Fair Lady (as often with the Sheffield Crucible, an audience with a high quota of well known theatre people – Michael Grandage, Cameron Mackintosh and Iain Glen among them), the chatter of the matinee crowd was mixing with the joyous noise of make believe Covent Garden on stage. It wasn’t so much a collision of worlds, as two worlds bleeding into each other. I have a soft spot for any production that attempts to blur the line between stage and audience. In this case, this was the perfect start for the three hours of joy that were to follow.
I haven’t seen My Fair Lady on stage before, and I am not sure I have seen the film version all the way through. But the musical is such a big part of collective consciousness that songs, snippets and images connect the production with rich personal memories. Director Daniel Evans doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel or overthrow tradition: his London is a mythical place, not as grimy and miserable as we know it was, but a place of dreams, for Eliza, Higgins and all of us. The production triumphs because this dreamed place is as vivid and heartfelt as anything in real life.
As it’s fitting for Eliza, Carly Bawden is a relative unknown who becomes a shining star before our eyes. Her assurance, confidence and immense skill are matched by her depth of feeling. There is little doubt that everyone will fall in love with her.
Dominic West as Professor Higgins is a casting choice that makes immediate sense. He is young, full of life, stubborn and unable to see the obvious. He also has the vulnerability of a child. West infuses the character with so much energy that Higgins’ behaviour becomes outrageous and irresistible in equal measures. His best moment comes at the final number “I ‘ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”: his devastation is real, unashamed but never pitiful. At the end, the moment of hope Eliza and Higgins are afforded is entirely earned.
Anthony Calf achieves the impossible: his Pickering is soft, funny, the perfect bumbling Englishman but never stupid. There is a delightful, imperceptible homoerotic tension with Higgins, which spices things beautifully. Louis Maskell as Freddy embodies open irresistible young love to perfection. There is no weak link in the whole cast, which makes every single moment a delight.
Still, the biggest star of the production is possibly the extraordinary ensemble: I dare anyone to sit through Get Me to the Church on Time or the Embassy Waltz and not feel overwhelmed by beauty and pure joy. Among the talented company, I spotted Matthew Malthouse who I remembered as the escapologist at the original Matilda cast. The link is not incidental: Matilda was probably the last musical that made me feel so happy. The Crucible production of My Fair Lady is of the same calibre.