My Fair Lady at Wales Millennium Centre Cardiff – theatre review
Thanks to Wales Millennium Centre for providing us with review tickets for My Fair Lady
Following successful runs on Broadway and in the West End, The Lincoln Center’s acclaimed production of My Fair Lady is touring the UK, currently in Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre for three weeks.
It’s a wonderfully evocative production harking back to the golden age of musicals but with a touch of modern day feistiness too. I took my 12 year old daughter to last night’s press night and we both thought it was excellent.
Read on for our full review and for booking details, plus take a look at my Reel on the Cardiff Mummy Says Instagram page.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady is the story of Eliza Doolittle, a working class Cockney flower girl who finds herself the subject of a social experiment as linguistics professor Henry Higgins accepts a bet to transform her into a high society lady. First staged in 1956 it ran for a record-breaking 2,717 performances, winning six of the nine Tony Awards it was nominated for, including Best Musical. It soon transferred to the West End, before being turned into a hit film in 1964 starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.
This stage production is the first in more than 15 years, opening on Broadway in 2018 and London in May of this year. It’s now touring the UK, stopping in Cardiff for three weeks.
Charlotte Kennedy, a relative newcomer to the stage, plays Eliza and she’s – to string together a couple of her most famous words – abso-bloomin-lutely loverly. Her enchanting vocals echo the classic musicals of yesteryear with a tone and quality that you just don’t see in the more modern American-sounding musicals (I’m a huge fan of those, don’t get me wrong; it’s just so refreshing to see a old-style production). Kennedy gives her Eliza a bit more humour than I remember from the film – and plenty more sass too. It’s undoubtedly a challenge staging a modern production of a show that is very much of its time, when values have changed: Eliza is still bound by her place in society as a working class woman, but her frustrations are made clear.
Professor Henry Higgins is played by Michael D Xavier, an award-winning West End and Broadway star and two-time Olivier Award nominee. He’s sexist, classist, egotistical and arrogant but Xavier gives him an air of complexity and depth. He exasperated me but I felt for him too. Heather Jackson is wonderfully elegant as Mrs Higgins, his mother – I loved the way she took Eliza under her wing, calling out her son’s awful treatment of her.
Adam Woodyatt – yep, Ian Beale from EastEnders – plays Eliza’s father Alfred P Doolittle, a drunken chancer who’s out for what he can get. It’s his first musical role since 1980 – and he’s actually really good. We all know he can do a good Cockney accent, but his singing and dancing is on point too. His rendition of Get Me To The Church On Time, which sees him dancing on a table and slowly getting more and more drunk and humorously raucous, is energetic, flamboyant and great fun. I could have watched several more times and not got bored; there was so much going on in every part of the stage, it was a visual delight and so well-choreographed.
Much-loved soprano Lesley Garrett is wonderfully cast as Higgins’ housekeeper, the ever-watchful, no-nonsense Mrs Pearce, while John Middleton gives a bit of character to Colonel Pickering, who put the Cinderella style rags-to-riches challenge to Higgins. Tom Liggins as Freddy is an interesting character – lovestruck by Eliza, standing outside her house, writing her letters. He’s usually portrayed as haplessly in love but coming from a modern perspective my daughter thought he was a bit of a stalker. Either way, his vocal number On The Street Where You Live is charming.
There’s a huge ensemble playing the street sellers, high society guests, Higgins’ staff and so on, who provide some stunning harmonies in the musical numbers, all ably accompanied by a large live orchestra.
There are plenty of well-loved songs in this musical, which have really stood the test of time and are likely to be familiar to even those who know little about the musical, from Eliza’s I Could Have Danced All Night, The Rain In Spain and Wouldn’t It Be Loverly to Higgins’ I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face and A Hymn To Him, and Alfred’s With A Little Bit of Luck and the aforementioned Get Me To The Church On Time. Judging by the toe tapping and lip synching around me, I know I wasn’t the only member of the audience resisting the urge to join in and sing along.
Michael Yeargan’s rotating sets are intricate and detailed although there are times when scenery is kept to a minimum and it’s left to Catherine Zuber’s costumes to do the talking, most notably the decadent attire as Henry takes Eliza to the races. Eliza’s stunning gown as she attends the high society ball is exquisitely tailored, its gems sparkling across the auditorium. Oh, to have an opportunity to dress in that Edwardian glamour.
Age guidance wise, the Wales Millennium Centre website bills it as suitable for ages eight and above. Although there’s nothing content-wise that I would feel uncomfortable with my eight year old watching, it’s longer than most musicals (two hours and 45 minutes, including interval) and very dialogue-heavy in parts. Even though he’s an avid theatregoer, I think he would have struggled to stay focused for that long, so I think it would depend on the child in question. My daughter, 12, knew little about the show beforehand, other than a couple of the musical numbers, but she was engrossed throughout and it lead to some really interesting conversations on the way home about women’s role in society at the time, class struggles, and the history of musicals.
From the lead performances to the ensemble, from the costumes to the sets, from the big musical numbers to the more sedate ones, this really is an exquisite production where so much attention and thought has been given to every aspect of its staging. Enjoyable and thought-provoking, we highly recommend it.
My Fair Lady is at Wales Millennium Centre until Saturday 26 November with tickets still available, priced from £19.50. You can book online here.
Production photos by Marc Brenner.
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