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My Fair Lady

Richard Watts

Opera Australia and John Frost’s nostalgic recreation of the original Broadway production is poorly suited to the cavernous Regent Theatre.
My Fair Lady

Photo by Jeff Busby

Following successful seasons in Sydney and Brisbane – where ArtsHub reviewer Gillian Wills justly praised its ‘sumptuous costumes and gorgeous theatrical tableaux’ – Opera Australia and John Frost’s nostalgic recreation of the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady is now playing at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre.

It is ill-suited to the venue. At its Broadway debut, My Fair Lady played New York’s Mark Hellinger Theatre, a 1,506 seater. The Regent holds 2,162. The size difference is palpable. From the upper reaches of the dress circle, where this writer was seated, watching the production play out under its miniature proscenium arch was like peering into a shoebox diorama from 100 metres. The distance was not at all conducive to developing a sense of emotional connection with the actors and their characters, while the steep sightlines from my vantage point also meant that actors’ faces were often partially obscured when they climbed the staircase in Professor Higgins’ study.  

The size of the venue also means the cast – save for the operatically-voiced Mark Vincent as Freddy Eynsford-Hill – were heavily amplified; another distraction which prevented one from being fully swept up by the unfolding story and songs.

Having grown up listening to My Fair Lady on repeat, it was nonetheless thrilling to hear such much-loved numbers as ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ and ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’ sung live. As Eliza Doolittle, soprano Anna O’Byrne delights; she never entirely convinces as a Cockney flower-girl but once she transforms into an English rose her diction is clear, her singing glorious. She imbues every line with well-judged wit, fire and pathos as appropriate. As her deadbeat, drunken father, Reg Livermore brings sparkling comic timing and an appropriate hint of cruelty, while Robyn Nevin shines as Higgins mother, her steely resolve gradually fading to reveal a warm heart. Charles Edwards (a UK import best known locally for a recurring role in Downton Abbey), also charms – perhaps a little too much. Higgins is a curmudgeon and Edwards is a little too likeable in the role, though his timing, performance and presence definitely impress.

Directed by Julie Andrews, who originated the role of Eliza Doolittle in the original Broadway run, this artfully staged production also has the smell of mothballs around it. It’s a period piece, and while lavishly presented – the Embassy Ballroom set received its own round of applause on opening night – what once passed as entertainment is more problematic when seen through modern eyes.

The casual sexism, such as the occasional groping of female characters, coupled with Professor Higgins’ bullying and misogyny, grate. There’s also the lingering sense that Eliza’s last-minute return to Higgins at the musical’s conclusion is a sign of Stockholm Syndrome. It's a pat ending' a Broadway contrivance rather than a natural conclusion of the events portrayed. Equally frustrating are the constant blackouts between scenes and the playing out of short, unnecessary scenes in front of the curtain – required to cover set changes – which result from copying the original staging and which help extend the running time to over three hours including interval.

While it’s interesting to see such a faithful remount of the original production, a more contemporary revival with an eye to speeding up the narrative and addressing some of the musical’s clunkier moments, would have been more welcomed by this writer.

3 stars out of 5

My Fair Lady
Music by Frederick Loewe
Lyrics and book by Alan Jay Lerner
Directed by Julie Andrews
Regent Theatre, Melbourne
Until 27 July 2017

Read: Gillian Wills’ 4 ½ star review of the Brisbane leg of this production

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging and on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre. He is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts