(seen at the afternoon performance on 9th June 2022).
It amused the monkey to hear nothing but talk of the 1964 film before, at the interval and after this rather good live stage revival. That almost the entire audience expected no less than Hepburn and Harrison leaves any company with nearly as big a transformation as Eliza must make. That the monkey overheard no complaints afterwards hopefully indicates they succeeded admirably.
Amara Okereke as Eliza Doolittle, the ‘cabbage leaf’ transformed into a Lady from a bet between Professor Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton) and fellow language academic Colonel Pickering (Malcolm Sinclair) shines. A famous character journey, proof of just how well she manages comes near the end of the show as she returns to her roots and we find ourselves realising even before she does that she no longer ‘fits in’ where we first found her. Yet again this rising star triumphs, the monkey hoping her voice will survive the run as constant use takes its toll.
As mentors, Hadden-Paton is younger than usually cast, but has the advantage that his brisk abrasive attitude is all the more convincing. That his own mother (Annie Wensak covering with delightful timing and sincerity for absent Vanessa Redgrave) is happy to allow Eliza to throw him out of her home sums him up admirably.
Sinclair finds in Pickering some delicious ambiguity, his joy at Whitley’s clothes shopping and a later telephone call to the Home Office to an old friend gives us clues to the man rarely seen.
In the wider cast, Sharif Afifi’s Freddy Eynsford-Hill delivers “On The Street Where You Live” with conviction, taking Eliza’s brush-off with fortitude.
Less successful, Stephen K Amos fails to find the instinctive street-smart survivalist that is Alfred P. Doolittle. Seemingly afraid of the music and dance elements of the role too, much of the lightness and comedy is lost both in character and delivery.
Bartlett Sher’s direction in general is surprisingly conservative anyway. For a production which had much made of the decisive change to the ending (monkey benefit – the row of seats in front of it was removed to facilitate it, and it got a wonderfully close moment with the cast) nothing new is found in the material and the whole lacks a little of the grandeur which made his “The King And I” unique at the London Palladium in 2018.
Most sadly, the cockney accents go adrift – “t” is sounded instead of “v” – as Higgins may well note; and there is a distinct lack of atmosphere in Covent Garden, the divide in class not to the fore quite as expected.
Speaking of divides, the vast stage and cavernous orchestra pit in front of it remains an issue – particularly in such an intimate relationship-based show as this one. Further, Michael Yeargan’s sets may have been on an epic scale for the New York run in 2018, but here they looked decidedly smaller and cheaper, with the edges of the stage masked off to assist filling it.
Fortunately Catherine Zuber’s wonderful costume designs (Ascot Opening Day and Eliza’s “Lady” outfits particular triumphs) provided colour and style to help fill the stage and telegraph character and location across the divide.
If Christopher Gattelli’s choreography at times is also too small to really fill the space, and less than exuberant during “Get Me To The Church On Time” (the Cockney Knees-Up hardly dislocates a patella and not a spoon is bashed) the stylish “Embassy Waltz” and “Ascot Gavotte” make up for it.
A small other note is Donald Holder’s lighting, which a couple of times appeared defeated by the movement of the Higgins home, misaligning at least one lamp to produce awkward dazzle for those on one side of the auditorium.
Even though we are offered little in the way of new insight or any particularly special new idea, we are at least presented with a sound production in all respects, a chance to see again a classic musical given the full staging and rich sounding orchestra it deserves.
Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning. Used by kind permission.