My Fair Lady

Kevin Bourke talks to the cast of My Fair Lady and discovers why the pressure is on to recreate this classic tale

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Tackling such a well-known and beloved musical as My Fair Lady can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Although you have the advantage that nearly everyone routinely acknowledges that it’s one of the most perfect musicals ever written – and, of course, knows all those great songs like On The Street Where You Live, With A Little Bit of Luck and Wouldn’t It Be Loverly – you can also, if you’re not careful, have the whole weight of that history and those expectations bearing down on you.

Sheffield Crucible’s production of Lerner and Loewe’s Pygmalion-based musical deftly avoids the traps, bringing a winning combination of exuberance and poignancy to the material, as well as a handful of witty references to famous past productions that actually make you realise what a great version this is, and how easily it can stand those comparisons.

“You always want to honour what has come before you, but at the same time you’ve just got to go for it,” says Carly Bawden, who is a real revelation as the show’s Eliza Doolittle. Blooming from lowly flower girl to an elegant and determined woman in love, she endures the bombastic and childlike Higgins dismissing her as everything from “bilious pigeon” to “squashed cabbage leaf”.

Antony Calf, who plays Colonel Pickering, has fond memories of the production from his youth.

“I always absolutely loved the show and, back when I was a struggling drama student, I’d actually worked for months as a flyman at the Adelphi Theatre in the West End when the Tony Britten version was playing there.

“So I assumed that I knew it well, until we started rehearsals and I found out that it was an even more sophisticated piece than I’d given it credit for.”

With television credits such as The Wire and The Hour to his name, alongside a successful run in Othello last year at the Crucible, Dominic West is one of the production’s main attractions as Professor Henry Higgins. But he is drawn to the play for more sentimental reasons.

“My Fair Lady was my dad’s favourite and so I grew up with it. It’s the most perfect musical, there is not much to change without lessening it,” says West.

It is Higgins, the petulant phonetics expert, who transforms Eliza Doolittle into someone who can pass for a Duchess, with life-changing implications for them both.

Much has been made of the fact that West has to sing in the role as it’s not an accomplishment for which he’s previously been noted.

“This is a pretty steep learning curve for me,” he admits.

However director Daniel Evans has pointed out that the part was actually written for an actor-singer rather than a singer who can act. “It’s written to be spoken, and Dominic’s an amazing actor. Higgins was made for him. Dominic has the temperament for it, and he has the class,” Evans maintains.

“I didn’t realise that, because the role was created for Rex Harrison, it’s in the score when you speak and when you sing. So you can’t deviate too much from his performance in that way,” adds West. “I never said to Daniel I wanted to do a musical but fortunately he thought I would be able to do it.”

But behind the PR spin, backstage the actors are keen to reveal their insecurities and admiration for one another.
“Actually”, chuckles Calf, “I think Dominic was terrified of the singing. I certainly know I was and I haven’t got nearly as much to do as he does. We supported each other during rehearsals basically by slagging each other off the whole time.
“Having to go from speaking to singing without any time to think about it, as Dominic has to do, is an incredibly difficult trick and I think he pulls it off remarkably well. Of course, he knows that there are some people in the audience who’ve come to see him because of his TV success but he’s terribly good at dealing with all of that.”

My Fair Lady, until 26 Jan, Crucible, Sheffield

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My Fair Lady

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