The Lincoln Center Theater’s lavish production of this absolute classic is a great fit for the Hippodrome stage. A huge company of performers and a whopper of a set all have room to cohabit. There is certainly no stinting on production values here.
Phonetics professor Henry Higgins encounters Cockerney flower seller Eliza Doolittle and their lives are changed forever. He diagnoses her with Irritable Vowel Syndrome and embarks on a project to get her speaking like a lady and accepted into high society within six months. And so we get a series of comic scenes where vowels are strangled until Eliza is finally able to impersonate her oppressors in the ruling class.
Higgins is a tough man to like. His views are problematic, even misogynistic, but Michael D Xavier imbues him with a kind of charm and enthusiasm that make us warm to him despite his Chauvinistic remarks. Charlotte Kennedy positively shines as Eliza, although I prefer her gorblimey stage to her more ‘refined’ moments. What snobs like Higgins fail to realise is that the beauty of the English language lies in its rich diversity of regional accents and dialects. There is no one way to ‘talk proper’. Be that as it may, Kennedy’s songs are to be relished. She looks and sounds the part, whatever the requirements of the scene.
Emmerdale’s John Middleton makes a sprightly Colonel Pickering, while EastEnders’s Adam Woodyatt brings the house down as Eliza’s gorblimey father, Alfred. Get Me To The ChurchOn Time is a real showstopper, staged here with all-out gusto. Lesley Garrett provides a nice spot of character acting as housekeeper Mrs Pearce, and you can hear her famous soprano ringing out in the chorus numbers. Tom Liggins, playing Eliza’s suitor Freddy, gets the best song of the show, the gloriously romantic On The Street Where You Live, and he sings it superbly.
Michael Yeargan’s impressive set never overshadows the action and director Bartlett Shaw has the characters moving through and around it fluidly. The sheer scale of the production knocks your socks off. And then there’s the sumptuous score by Frederick Loewe – such melodies! – and the evocative lyrics by Alan J Lerner. And you’re reminded why this is a prime example from the golden age of Musical Theatre.
Shaw (Bartlett) acknowledges Shaw’s (George Bernard) social commentary by restoring the starker final moment of original play Pygmalion – so don’t expect a cut-and-dried musical theatre happy ending.
A splendid old-school evening at the theatre combining Shavian class critiques with soaring romance.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Michael D Xavier and Charlotte Kennedy (Photo: Marc Brenner)
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 29th January, 2018
Based on the 1950 novel by Patricia Highsmith, this adaptation by Craig Warner plunges us into an amoral world, where man’s actions are not punished by the rule of law – the judicial and law enforcement systems exist but only to the extent that they are bogeymen, incited to shape the course of the action. One man introduces himself to another as they travel on the same train across 1950s Texas. A few drinks and a bit of chit-chat give rise to a deadly pact between them. The extrovert Charles Bruno (Chris Harper) proposes to murder the troublesome wife of Guy Haines (Jack Ashton) in exchange for Ashton’s murder of Bruno’s stingy father… It seems like a joke, a bit of drink-induced fun. Except Bruno goes through with his part of the bargain and soon expects Haines to do his…
As the loudmouth Bruno, Harper dominates the action, coldly amusing – the life and soul of any party, were he not such a chilling killer. Harper recites Bruno’s account of the first murder with icy relish. On the other hand, Jack Ashton’s Guy Haines is a complete contrast. Initially more reserved than Bruno, we see him shut further in on himself as the consequences of the pact begin to pinch. Both of these central roles are compellingly portrayed. Haines struggles to keep his life on the rails while Bruno keeps crashing into it like a runaway train.
There is excellent support from Hannah Tointon as Anne, Guy’s second wife, showing more backbone than we might expect by the play’s denouement. Also impressive are Helen Anderson as Bruno’s doting mother and brief appearances from Sandy Batchelor as Frank and Owen Findlay as Robert.
The star name for this tour must be John Middleton. Formerly the mild-mannered vicar Ashley Thomas in Emmerdale, Middleton gives a more assertive performance as Arthur Gerrard, the trusty retainer of Bruno’s late father, who smells a rat and winkles out the truth. Just as the murders occur off-stage, so does the bulk of Gerrard’s investigation, and so it does seem as if he stumbles across the facts with ease – but this is not a whodunit, rather a will-they-get-away-with-it, and the focus is on the aftermath’s effects on the protagonists.
David Woodhead’s set places the scenes in compartments with sliding panels that reveal and conceal parts of the stage accordingly. This means the actors don’t have much room to manoeuvre, adding to the claustrophobia of the piece and the sense that events are closing in on the killers. Woodhead dresses the cast in sharp suits of the period, complementing the strains of cool jazz that serve as incidental music for scenic transitions. The production is suffused with an Edward Hopper feel: murky yet dispassionate. In the confined settings, director Anthony Banks keeps things from becoming too static (although the lengthy opening scene on the train is in peril of becoming just that) by drawing out the intensity of the performances. Each character is heightened in some way.
Consistently intriguing rather than gripping, the production offers, via Highsmith, a different take on morality. Whether we want either Bruno or Haines or both of them to get off scot-free is a reflection on us.
Chris Harper and Jack Ashton getting acquainted on the train