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Theatre Review: This My Fair Lady is far from loverly

Bartlett Sher’s production is totally unnecessary and maybe a form of sacrilege

My Fair Lady: a pale imitation of the original (Photo: Marc Brenner)

My Fair Lady
The Coliseum, London, until August 27

I wonder if my parents’ generation, when they went to see My Fair Lady during its original London run with Rex Harrison, could ever have imagined that decades later their children and grandchildren would be watching pale imitations of this and so many other great shows.

It’s difficult to know what to say about Bartlett Sher’s production other than that it is totally unnecessary and maybe a form of sacrilege. It takes a special kind of arrogance to even attempt a project like this.

Sher ought to have known it really is not advisable to invite comparisons with greatness, and of course a lot of the greatness of the original staging of
the Lerner and Loewe musical lives on in George Cukor’s glorious and endlessly repeated 1964 film of the same name. Every scene and performance in this show made me think of every scene and performance I had seen on screen and how much they fell short.

Harry Hadden-Paton is a good and professional actor, but, of course, he is no substitute for Harrison as Henry Higgins, and the same is true of Amara Okereke in the Eliza Doolittle role that Audrey Hepburn played in the film. I am all for colour-blind casting, but, with Okereke in this role, Higgins wanting to change her suddenly took on unfortunate connotations.

There always seem to be connotations, too, when I hear anyone but Harrison singing one of the show’s big numbers, Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like a Man?

The script and the music are, of course, sacrosanct, but there is not even the most timid attempt to try to give audiences anything new. It feels like it’s all been set in aspic. Its one and only redeeming feature is that it offers Vanessa Redgrave a great cameo as Higgins’s mother. The legendary 85-year-old actress still has tremendous stage presence, but even this, Sher manages to dilute. Absurdly in one of her few scenes, she is talking with her vast picture hat tilted towards the audience so her face cannot be seen at all.

This show opened to notices a lot more enthusiastic than this at the Lincoln Centre in New York in 2018, but, then again, Americans have a soft spot for old-fashioned shows with British accents. They don’t do anything for us here, and all this production does is remind us of when we could do things a lot better than we do now.

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