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Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins and Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady" at the Shaw Festival. (Emily Cooper)
Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins and Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady" at the Shaw Festival. (Emily Cooper)

Review

My Fair Lady delights but lacks class bite Add to ...

  • My Fair Lady
  • Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
  • Music by Frederick Loewe
  • Directed by Molly Smith
  • Starring Deborah Hay, Benedict Campbell




Many are the Eliza Doolittles who, right from the start of My Fair Lady, seem ready to pick up their consonants at the drop of a hat and assume the carriage of a lady. Deborah Hay is not one of those mockney Elizas.

In the opening scene of the Shaw Festival's new production of the much-loved musical, Hay's Eliza does not seem in disguise as a lower-class, flower girl. She appears to be in her natural habitat, stomping and flapping about like a monkey crossed with a hen in a gritty corner of Covent Garden

And she squawks; she certainly squawks. When linguistics professor Henry Higgins (Benedict Campbell) tells her to stop "crooning like a bilious pigeon," his simile seems less cruel than accurate.

Higgins and his friend in phonetics Colonel Pickering (Patrick Galligan, gallant and self-satisfied as ever) certainly do have their work cut out for them to erase Eliza's "verbal class distinction" and "pass her off as a duchess at an embassy ball" within six months. All credit to Hay for not making the result seem a forgone conclusion for once in this 1956 Lerner and Loewe classic based on Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion.

And yet Hay - a gifted comedienne who became the de facto face of the Shaw Festival after dazzling audiences with her last re-education as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday two seasons ago - has the opposite problem of most Elizas. Her flower girl doesn't fully flower - her performance (and singing voice) straining as she assumes the manners and modulations of the upper class.

She and her co-stars are also stuck in an intermittently entertaining, but curiously under-defined production helmed by American director Molly Smith, returning to the Shaw after her critically acclaimed work on Mack and Mabel in 2007 and, more recently, Oklahoma! at her home base in Washington, D.C.

Smith's production seems only semi-cognizant of the class context of Edwardian England in which My Fair Lady is set.

Among the lower classes, Eliza's fellow Cockney costermongers and the drinking buddies of Eliza's father Alfred P. Doolittle (a delightfully degenerate Neil Barclay) are entirely cartoonish - colourful, cheerful and oddly reminiscent of Boy George and Culture Club in Judith Bowden's inconsistent costuming.

As for the upper class, Smith goes in for crusty stereotypes for the scene at Ascot, with the ensemble all twisting their features into horsey grotesques. It is funny certainly - and Bowden's costumes are less gaudy here - but this is still not the sociopolitical sophistication we're accustomed to at the Shaw. (And, though I hate to say it, it seems an illustration of a very superficial, American understanding of class.)

The lack of depth ultimately limits the musical's ability to move as well as amuse. When Eliza describes the rather ghastly conditions she was raised in - where an aunt might be "done in" by a friend for a hatpin - it is played purely for laughs. Smith's production seems as detached as Campbell's marvellously aloof Henry Higgins. It leaves you feeling very little.

The romance - or non-romance - between Eliza and Higgins is left pencilled in as well. When they meet again in the final scene that throws Shaw's intentions out the window, it is confusing rather than artfully ambiguous, with the curtain dropping suddenly and cutting the head off the reunion like a guillotine. (It slices off the end of the first act in a similarly jarring manner.)

Smith's production is more disappointing than a disaster, though. There are sizable delights - the biggest one, pun only partially intended, coming from Barclay's bulky and surprisingly sprightly Alfred P. Doolittle. Daniel Pelzig's clever choreography in songs like With A Little Bit of Luck and Get Me To the Church On Time are the highlights of the show, even if the Stomp-inspired elements of drumming of boxes and cans may have been borrowed from Trevor Nunn's recent production.

Ken MacDonald's elegant set gives us a metaphor, turning Higgins's household into a series of giant birdcages, that Adam Larsen's delightful projections complete, depicting birds in free flight. There is a gorgeous bit of singing from Mark Uhre's Freddy Eynsford-Hill of On the Street Where You Live; his Freddy may be idle rich, but he nevertheless seems a somewhat more suitable suitor for Eliza than Higgins. What the production wanted to say about this love triangle and Eliza's emancipation, however, remains fuzzy.

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