my Higgis

Michael D. Xavier as Professor Henry Higgins and John Middleton as Colonel Pickering

 Pictures:  Marc Brenner

My Fair Lady

Birmingham Hippodrome


There will never be a perfect production, but some shows give perfection a fair old run for its money, and My Fair Lady is one of that celebrated band. It is just superb.

The set is magnificent, the lighting lifting every scene, and as for the cast . . .

Many people only see the Lerner and Loewe musical in terms of the 1964 film, which sets the cast against the likes of Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, and this cast come out of any comparison more than holding their own.

Charlotte Kennedy, who plays Eliza, was indisposed and although we all like to see the headliners, I must admit to a guilty pleasure. I delight in seeing understudies in leading roles, the anticipation negating the disappointment. It’s their cup final and they give it their all - and Rebekah Lowings did not disappoint one little jot.

Normally one of the hard working ensemble and one of Prof Higgins servants she stepped in to be a quite wonderful Eliza. She looked and acted the part quite beautifully and her voice is to die for, pitch perfect, soaring range and wonderful tone. Press night was her night, and she grabbed it with both hands. Her Just You Wait had real anger while her bittersweet Without You after the bet is won leaving her future uncertain is a showstopper.

Matching her in every scene was Broadway and West End star Michael D. Xavier as Prof Henry Higgins, a phonetics expert who can place you almost to the house you were born in from your accent.

His other remarkable skill is managing to turn arrogance into an art form. It is a glorious performance with faultless timing, full of telling gestures and glances and awash with fun, not that Higgins would see it that way.

mrs Pearce

Lesley Garrett as Mrs Pearce with Annie Wensak

Amid the prof’s eccentricities we find a fine voice. Xavier’s I’m an Ordinary Man and A Hymn to Him are full of humour while the sad, emotive I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face is a real highlight - you really do feel for the professor battling with the pangs of  (whisper it softly) love.

Overflowing with self confidence, it is Higgins’ wager with Col Pickering, an expert in Indian dialects, played by John Middleton, that the whole show is about. He has bet Pickering that with his teaching he can pass the Cor blimey, guv! street flower seller Eliza off as a duchess at the Embassy Ball in six months time.

Now both are phonetics experts, Pickering on the Indian sub-continent, Higgins closer to home, but there is a major difference – Pickering is a gentleman of the old school, and from the very start treats Eliza as a lady, while Higgins treats her at the start as a lowly street flower seller which doesn’t change when she becomes every delightful inch a lady.

Not that she is alone in that, he treats the opposite sex, even its titled members, as lowly street flower sellers, showing an equal opportunities male arrogance, all, you suspect, hiding a gap in his extensive education. He knows nothing about women and just wishes they were more like . . . well chaps. He can get on with chaps.

Putting up with his peculiar ways is his long suffering housekeeper Mrs Pearce, played by Lesley Garrett, who Higgins would have spotted immediately was born just outside Doncaster. Sadly, we never got a chance to hear her wonderful voice but she fussed around and gave us a twirl with Eliza in I could Have Danced All Night.

Despairing over Henry is, Mrs Higgins, his top drawer, socialite mother, played with a suitably up-market demeanour by Heather Jackson. Mother, much to Henry’s dismay really takes to Eliza, firmly backing her after Henry dismisses Eliza’s part in what he sees as his triumph, and his alone, in winning the bet.

In the background, or usually the pub, we had Eliza’s father Alfred P Doolittle, played by Adam Woodyatt, he of the much married Ian Beale in EastEnders, so no surprise Alf is hardly a hero, bit of a con man in fact, and out of habit is set to add another marriage to the already long Beale list, getting married in the morning it seems.


Adam Woodyatt as Alfred P. Doolittle with Jenny Legg, Sinead Kenny and Dammi Aregbeshola

Back in musical theatre for the first time in more than 30 years, Woodyatt seems to be revelling in it with a huge ensemble number with hints of Moulin Rouge for his last night of . . . perhaps best not delve into that . . . for Get Me to the Church on Time.

And hovering around we have Tom Liggins as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a young man taking infatuation to new heights. He seems to spend most of his time On The Street Where You Live. And he lets us know where he is hanging out with a delightful baritone voice.

The singing cannot be faulted and what a difference it makes to have a large orchestra in the pit supporting them, ten strong is big for touring productions but it makes a huge difference to the quality of the sound under conductor and musical director, Alex Parker.

The set from Michael Yeargen is roll on roll off flats and a multi functional pub-come-music hall all dominated by a brilliant huge revolving house which glides in from the rear, beautifully furnished with upstairs and downstairs, a shower room, garden, a lounge and library and rear hallway.

Allied to the set is the masterful lighting of Donald Holder, the wonderful costumes from Catherine Zuber and purposeful choreography from Christopher Gattelli.

It is the same team, incidentally, responsible for The King and I, another Lincoln Centre Theatre production which has just passed through Birmingham on its second UK tour, all directed by Bartlett Sher, resident director at the Lincoln Centre for the past 15 years. The man has the magic touch, and the Tonys to prove it, when it comes to musicals.

One fascinating touch, incidentally, comes in the Ascot race scene where the thundering sound of galloping hooves moves from stage right slowly around the rear of the auditorium to stage left. Extra touches to make a difference. Sound design, incidentally by Mark Salzberg.

The ending of My Fair Lady has been a problem ever since George Bernard Shaw wrote his play Pygmalion, the source of the musical, back in 1913. His ending had Eliza left as a servant, but people wanted a happy ending, Shaw argued and compromised, and  the musical owes much to the 1938 film which, incidentally introduced the pronunciation exercises about rain in Spain and hurricanes in Hereford.

Thus, the ending is now ambiguous. Does Eliza and up with Freddy, or Higgins or make her own way – you can end it however you want.

This is the best version of the musical I have seen, it has everything you could want, familiar songs, superb acting and enough heart to warm you on even the coldest of snowy nights.  Its what you might call loverly. To 19-03-23.

Roger Clarke


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