As an old fan of NMTS productions, their 2017 production of Lerner and Loewe’s 50’s musical ‘My Fair Lady’ (immortalized in Audrey Hepburn’s multi-award winning film of the same name) promised to be something a little different, and as I entered the building I had time to reflect on whether these changes would be for the better or not. Firstly, the company had opted to move their spring production from its long-time home at The Corn Exchange, to the auditorium at Kennet School, a downward move from a professional venue to a school hall. Secondly, a new director was taking the reins, albeit an old hand at NMTS, and one that had led in a minor production a few years ago. And thirdly, and possibly one that offered to most intrigue, were the unusual castings apparent from the headshots in the foyer I mulled over while sipping my drink from the bar – most companies struggle to get any young men in an amatuer production, yet NMTS seemed to able to afford to cast young men in roles with a typical playing-age twice their own!
As I stepped into the auditorium, the stage, at floor level, opened out before me. Simply set, a doorway on a red-brick wall, a few strewn crates, a brazier for chilled urchins to huddle around, all overshadowed by glorious columned arches representing the wealth of the city of London, all beautifully silhouetted at this time, by a well-lit cyc’ beyond. To the right, a small band waited, a well-stocked lighting rig above, and the auditorium with steeply raked seating for the audience – The venue, it seemed, was well equiped – not your average school hall!
The cast filled the stage, the band played, and before us we saw the stark class contrast in the turn of 20th century England, grubby lower class, mixing on the streets with well dressed upper class. Well hidden at first, from the poor emerges Eliza (Paige Mackay), a young flower seller with a street accent, touting her wares to the bumbling Colonel Pickering (Paul Strickland). Outed for spying on this exchange, we discover Henry Higgins (Tom Hazelden) is actually a master of linguistics, as is Pickering, and has been capturing the dialects of the exchange. Higgins opens the musical numbers singing disapproval that the English aren’t taught to correctly pronounce their own mother tongue, and subsequently boasts that he is so good he could teach somebody as disgustingly low as Eliza to pass as royalty. Tom, the first unusual casting choice, quickly took control of the scene and reassured that his casting as Higgins was not only good, it was inspired – his voice, body language and character brilliantly launched the tale from the chaos of the London streets. While the blocking and costume made it tricky to see her expression, it was clear that Paige’s Eliza was brilliant, as rough as a lump of coal in voice and crooked posture to match, later expressing that “All [she] wants is a room somewhere”, seeding Eliza’s drive for the majority of the rest of the act.
A quick change in pace sees the story switch to the arrival of Eliza’s father, Alfie Doolittle (Jaz Wilson), a loveable rogue always flanked by his banterous wingmen (played by Martin Rogers, Jake Mawson). He sings, with more character than melody, that, “With a little bit of luck” you can pretty much get away with anything. A great ensemble number with good movement.
Returning to the main plot line, Eliza calls on Higgins and Pickering to ask for elocution lessons which transforms into a challenge, backed by a gentleman’s wager, for Higgins to pass Eliza as an upper class lady at a ball within six months. Great comic moments from Paige in contrast to Tom’s bullish and unfeeling Higgins.
Back on the street Alfie hears, via a great cameo character by Cathy Black, that Eliza is living with a gent, and resolves that with a bit of luck he can profit from this situation. He calls on Higgins, with the intention of squeezing him for a few pounds, a great scene followed with a real battle of morals, leaving Higgins a real fan of the dustman’s rhetoric. Jaz, the second unusual casting, is again much younger in real life than Alfie in the story, a fact that is well hidden beneath beard and makeup. He plays this character well, with an enjoyable realism in his character performance I had not seen in this role before.
Eliza’s comic suffering of Higgins’ tortuous lessons, which she plotted to return tenfold in the humorous “Just you wait”, continues leaving her (and possibly the audience) wondering whether she could ever blossom from this cockney guttersnipe into the lady we hope her to become, Paige’s characterisation being far too comfortably rough, and up to this point her singing much more characterful than melodic. However, at their lowest ebb (scenes wonderfully broken by a greek chorus led by Carol Joice), something clicks within Eliza, and she begins to enunciate her drills with an accent to be proud of, launching a joyous party between the three in “The rain in Spain” – which probably could have been staged with more euphoria – quickly followed by Eliza’s “I could have danced all night”, a first chance to hear Paige’s beautiful singing voice, and one that was well worth waiting for.
As Higgins had resolved to “try Eliza out” at the Ascot races to see if she could carry her new persona, the following scene opens with the company in their upper-crust finest, refined and statuesque, brilliantly juxtaposed against the excitable Eliza, failing to blend in, in nearly every way. An excellent ensemble scene, including a notably comic exchange between Pickering and Mrs Higgins (Jacqui Trumper).
While Eliza failed to fool the toffs at the races, she did catch the attention of a love-interest, Freddie (Pete Warbis), who’s fine light tenor voice sang of the joy at being on “The street where [she lived]”. An enjoyable performance to watch.
Months later, and to close the act, Higgins and Pickering having finally polished Eliza til she gleams, all attend the Royal Ball – again the company got to shine in their finest, and participate in an elegant waltz. With the potential to spoil the party, rival linguist Zoltan Kapathy (Shaun Blake) vowed to work his magic on the enigmatic Eliza in her regal guise, and fails in every way to discover she was living in the gutter six months previous.
As the act closes, the seeming success of lab-rat Eliza’s transformation by the hand of unsympathetic Higgins shone through, and the audience are left to reflect on the great quality of the long first act, the effort put in by the company and two lead principals especially, along with the the numbing realisation that the main shortfall of the new venue is the comfort of the seating.
Act two opens with a bang – the jubilant Higgins and Pickering laughing at their success at the ball, in stark contrast to the solemn Eliza who has realised that with the end of this game, she is left without a future for the first time in her life. After a fiery exchange with Higgins, she leaves the house in the small hours, into the hands of Freddie waiting outside. While Freddie pours words of love, Eliza vents her frustration at him in “Show me”, where she longs for action, not words. A great comic performance by Pete in this song was enjoyable to watch, and was a great hit with the audience, but for me didn’t fit with the mood of the piece.
Eliza, now a lady, returns to make a sentimental visit to her old stomping-ground and is treated with great respect by her old neighbours, who fail to recognise her in her new guise. A beautiful moment, however directorially the blocking here felt lazy and underdone compared to the highs of act one. This smudge carried on into the next scene where Alfie returns, now an unfortunate millionaire, under the promise of getting married to his long-suffering Mrs later that day. Jaz leading the way, this scene quickly built into a full ensemble knees-up and, for me, the best worked and most enjoyable musical numbers of the night – great choreography Nikki Rogers, this was a huge success.
Back in Higgins’ study, having discovered the unfathomable truth of the disappearance of their protege, Pickering works to track her down while Higgins vents his frustration in the timeless “Hymn to him” of everything he doesn’t quite understand about the psychology of the fairer sex. Brilliantly performed by Tom, I doubt this song will ever age, as it paints the differences between relationships in each of the sexes so comically.
Running off to his mother’s house for assistance , Higgins is flabbergasted to discover that Eliza is already there and firmly under his mother’s wing. He attempts to order her to return to him but, now as a young confident lady, she refuses, expressing in song that she could do bloody well without him, with Freddie waiting for her (probably in a car outside).
Dejected, Higgins returns to his study with the realisation that, while she might be able to cope without him, he could not so easily cope without her. With a feeling of great loss, he listens to recordings of her voice, alone, until, surprisingly, she returns to him. End of show.
The performance of Tom throughout the duration of this show was exceptionally good. He was a very good Higgins and carried the show throughout, with great characterisation. His work in the many, wordy songs was largely without fault. If looking to improve on the performance in the future, I would say that more clearly showing the transition in Higgins’ emotions in the many scenes could only be beneficial, and in the early stages of the play give a little more dominance and obstreperousness.
Paige’s Eliza was brilliant; the comedy and character she bought in her first-half characterisation, and the fine elocution and beautiful singing voice of the second half were a testament to her range as a performer – it’s no wonder she was able to scoop this much sought-after role. Eiza’s body language changed in act two, slightly less refined than at the end of act 1, and I wasn’t sure if this was intentional (after the many changes Paige had presented, it is hard to tell); personally I would have liked Eliza to stay the perfect lady for the duration.
Paul Strickland’s Pickering, I felt, was largely faultless. The perfect man to complete the crazy triangle and, after the unusual casting of such a young Higgins, played it perfectly to legitimise the relationships between the three: I wasn’t sure this relationship would work before the show, but on reflection I felt it did without changing the nature of the story. Occasionally, on the night I watched, he fumbled a couple of his gags, but these were tiny specks in a great performance.
I felt, directorially, the combination of Alfie and Freddie posed problems – Alfie I see as the comic relief from the main plot line, and Freddie as the romantic interest. In this production, the interpretation of Freddie was very camp and comical which, while well done and highly entertaining to watch, I don’t think helped the story along – why would Eliza’s seriously consider this Freddie as a romantic alternative? The result of this distracted from the comic role of Alfie. Jaz’s Alfie brought a dramatic realism to the character that was new and different but, compared to other Alfies I have seen, could be improved in the future by making himself even more of a charismatic rogue (Alfie is the centre of the universe, and knows it).
Jacqui’s Mrs Higgins is an interesting one as this wasn’t a text-book interpretation. However, with such a young Henry Higgins, this wasn’t a text-book production, and I actually thought the relationship between the two worked perfectly. Her delivery, and characterisation were good, whether despairing of or antagonising her wayward son.
The chorus were onstage frequently, both in full numbers and in smaller groups (the servants were called on often, with great effect), and they always well drilled and carried the story in their scenes well.
While, on the night I attended, there was the odd feedback blipp for the radio-mics, the sound, and especially the balance of this smaller band was good – a serendipitous advantage of scaling down for the new venue.
The set was simple, and clever – notably the changes where city’s columned arches effortlessly transformed into the library for Higgins’ study – and this worked well. The last time the company performed this show (2001) I vividly remember the complexity of switching the large truck-set for Higgins’ study on and off stage, and the changes for the 2017 staging were significantly less intrusive. Well done Set Designer (Paul Strickland). The props were effective and fitting, however some of the major scenes were blocked very far upstage, where there seemed no reason for this in such a big space. The lighting, also, was very effective in augmenting the tale, and the lighting in the ball scene especially was very beautiful.
Costume was generally fine, although there were a few random choices in there – however I think the two leading ladies drew the short straw at some points. Makeup was fitting, but some fake beards however were horrific, meaning the beardy disguises just ended drawing more attention to the actors, rather than less!
In summary, this was a fine and enjoyable production, especially made so by the contribution of the leading pair. The company utilised the new space perfectly, far from being a downgrade, I wouldn’t be disappointed to see them perform a future budget production in the same space again.
Congratulations to Justine, Tony, Jon, Nikki and the team. A job well done.
Ensemble – minor parts – lighting – choreography
(Guest Reviewer for It’s all an act)