My Fair Lady


"How you are to manage without me, I cannot imagine" says Eliza Doolittle, and walks out on Henry Higgins, closing the door behind her.

And that is more or less where Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion comes to an end: a closure almost as decisive as when Nora walks out on Torvald in Ibsen's Doll's House. Lerner and Lowe's musical adaptation follows the Leslie Howard movie: we follow Higgins back to his Wimpole street home, where Eliza is waiting for him.

In tonight's revival Higgins asks for his slippers quietly, almost under his breath: there is a long, significant glance, and then Eliza walks off stage, to the unfortunately now compulsory standing ovation. Are we supposed to think that Eliza wavered at the last moment; or that she wanted a more intimate goodbye; or that Higgins is imagining her presence; or that Eliza's exit is a meta-commentary by the actor on the play? Shaw himself said that anyone with a basic understanding of human nature would know without being told that Eliza does indeed merry Freddy, that they do indeed run a florist's business, and that they resume friendly, but not intimate, relations with Higgins (who Eliza occasionally fantasises about). The ending of the play is a poor fit for a musical; but the Harrison / Hepburn ending is as problematic as Kate's submission to Petrucio.

I assume you know the plot? Eliza Doolittle (Charlotte Kennedy) don't talk proper. Prof Henry Higgins (Michael D Xavier) makes a bet with Col Pickering (John Middleton) that he can convince the world she is as posh as he is. After some false steps, they win the bet. Higgins feels he has created an ideal woman and wants her to stay with him; but Eliza is a person in her own right and wants to leave. Ironically, her father (Adam Woodyat) is also propelled into the middle class: as a result of a prank by Higgins he inherits a fortune and is forced to become respectable. He makes an honest woman of his common law wife; Eliza rides into the sunset with the nice-but-dim Freddy Eynesford Hill (Tom Liggins). 

I knew that the show involved hats, frocks, a horse race, ferrero roche, and Get Me To The Church On Time. I knew that Eliza says arse instead of bloody. What I had forgotten is how much of Shaw's text comes through in the script, and how many of his ideas make it into the lyrics. "An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him" sings Higgins in the opening number "The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him", which is a direct quote from Shaw's preface. ("It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise or hate him".) A good solution to this problem might be for people to stop hating and despising each other. But Higgins' alternative plan -- that everyone should be made to talk the same -- is never questioned. We have to take it for granted that Received Pronunciation is a neutral, correct, platonic form of language which Eliza's East End dialect is a lazy and wilful distortion. It isn't just a matter of class: Welsh, Cornish and Yorkshire people are just as bad. "There are even places where English completely disappears: in America they haven't spoken it for years." 

In the songs, Higgins is a cheerily comedic bachelor-loner who we can indulge or even agree with. ("You want to talk of Keats or Shakespeare / she only wants to talk of love / you go to see a play or ballet / she'll spend it searching for a glove.") But in the Shavian sections he's a bully to the point of being an abuser, perpetually dehumanising Eliza -- she's a thing, a baggage, a creature, a cabbage. Once she has learned diction, she's a work of art he's created. There may have been moments where Xavier's anger tended a little bit too much toward Fawltyesque nervous ticks; but he worked terribly hard to make us like him, or at any rate not hate him. I thought he did the big patter numbers (Never Let a Woman in Your Life / Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man) better than Rex Harrison. 

Higgins might have had a thing or two to say about the loudness and shrillness of the row of people in front of us; but they evidently didn't know the story and there were some gratifying gasps at some of his more outrageous comments. Higgins barely stops short of physically assaulting Eliza, to which she retorts "I always knew you'd hit me sooner or later." There are slightly more light hearted remarks about Eliza's father beating her with a belt and the housekeeper walloping her with a broom-handle than are comfortable. I could see something being made of this in a darker production (of Pygmalion if not of My Fair Lady.)

I think Charlotte Kennedy is in the category of RP speakers who have to pretend to be cockneys in order to play Eliza, rather than vice versa, and there are moments where she seemed to be veering into Northern. Her voice in the big numbers (Rain In Spain / I Could Have Danced All Nigh) is impeccable and operatic. She's at her funniest, of course, in the Ascot scene, where she grotesquely exaggerates all her elocution lessons and parrots the posh people's language back at them. She is menacingly passive in She Did It -- when Pickering and Higgins congratulate each other while completely ignoring Eliza -- but perhaps not quite violent enough when she chucks the slippers.

Alfred Doolittle is a little more fleshed out than he is in the play, although his story arc is unchanged. Where Shaw only shows him visiting Higgins, Lerner and Lower let us see him outside the pub with his cronies, and getting some brief one-to-one time with his daughter. He brings the house down in Act 1 with Wiv A Little Bit of Luck and again in Act 2 with Get Me To The Church On Time -- the latter a huge set piece with a life sized Pollocks theatre, and members of the ensemble happily switching gender to provide and endless supply of can-can girls. (The cast resist the audience's demand for an encore.) Adam Woodyatt, who has a certain amount of experience playing cockneys, gives Alfred a comedic seriousness that stops well short of caricature. I have never quite believed that a dustman would be sad about inheriting a fortune, but I completely believed Higgins when he said Alfred would have made a good politician or an evangelical preacher. 

There are one or two moments where the conventions of the musical seem to take over: I Could Have Danced All Night is a great song but seems to have been arbitrarily pasted in from a different story; and Freddy (a very minor character in the play) seems only to exist in order to sing On The Street Where You Live. Twice. He sings it very well. Higgins house rotates on the stage; lamp posts and pub frontages are wheeled in and out; silhouettes are projected onto backdrops. A small suffragette demonstration passes Alfred's pub, but chirpy cockneys and chimney sweeps are kept to an utter minimum.

Ending aside, there is no sense of a show being re-invented or re-interpreted. I did enjoy Higgins pathetically calling for Mum when Eliza walks out; and the fraction of a beat pause in Why Can't A Woman... to suggest that Higgins and Pickering might possibly be more than just good friends. I wonder if the brave thing would have been to allow Higgins to sing "I've grown accustomed to a trace / of something in the air / accustomed to her face" outside his house (in the exact same spot where Freddy was spooning Street Where You Live) and then go inside, close the door, and bring down the curtain at that point: allowing Shaw's intentions and human psychology to over-rule Lerner and Lowe. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you enjoy these reviews, please consider leaving a tip on the Ko-Fi platform. 

If you can afford it, please consider becoming a Patreon, by pledging £1 or more each time I publish an essay on the main blog. (I don't charge for these little reviews.) 

Please do not feed the troll. 

Pledge £1 for each essay.

Make a one-off donation on Ko-Fi

No comments: