Strong work from leads Harry Hadden-Paton and Amara Okereke can’t quite make this production of My Fair Lady work in the London Coliseum
“I’ll never know what made it so exciting”
For a musical considered such a classic, you don’t get many productions of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady to the pound. The National’s revival with Martine McCutcheon dates back more than 20 years now (before my theatre-blogging time) and outside of London, Sheffield Theatre’s soaring production was nearly a decade ago (I did get to see that one). Even further afield, it did reappear in New York in 2018 and it is that Lincoln Center production that has now set up home at the London Coliseum.
In some ways, it is a happy (spiritual) homecoming. In its two leading roles, director Bartlett Sher has garnered two strong performances. Harry Hadden-Paton reprises his turn as a younger-than-usual and wryly funny Henry Higgins and Amara Okereke shimmers as Eliza Doolittle, a legit soprano getting a rare chance to sing a big legit soprano role. And Catherine Zuber’s costumes and hats are magnificently outré , to the point where you’re worrying about neck support for several of the cast.
But in too many others, this is a stolid production that hardly ever quickens the pulse and commits a few too many mis-steps. Physically, the show feels marooned in the vastness of the Coliseum and similarly, the sound of Gareth Valentine’s considerable orchestra feels hampered by the space. Even from the stalls, I felt distant from the action and removed from the score – music as good as this deserves respect and this treatment just doesn’t work.
Stephen K Amos feels wildly miscast as Alfred Doolittle, neither acting nor singing up to much and so lacking any stage presence. Vanessa Redgrave’s Mrs Higgins has the presence but feels fragile here, thus swallowed up a tad. And Sharif Afifi’s Freddie has been mis-directed into overdoing the Tigger-ishness which ruins the character’s whole arc as a plausible romantic alternative for Eliza. Malcolm Sinclair and Maureen Beattie offer sterling supporting work where they can though.
The cumulative effect is thus one which continually saps the energy of a relatively bright start and its source material. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this a bad production, it is just one that didn’t engage me in the way that Daniel Evans did with Dominic West and Carly Bawden in Sheffield. Even the attempts to subvert the traditional (as in a misguided overturned ending) end up falling flat, seeming to miss the point of the book entirely.