MY FAIR LADY | London, Coliseum

It dazzled audiences in New York pre-pandemic, and now Bartlett Sher’s New York production of My Fair Lady has hopped daintily across the pond without so much as muddying its petticoats. And it couldn’t be better situated: compared to the utilitarian Lincoln Centre Theatre, the ornate lustre of the London Coliseum brings the musical’s class analysis uncomfortably close to home.

Despite sticking to Alan Jay Lerner’s hilarious and caustic script, the production still has the feel of a modern update. Today’s audiences may cringe at hearing Higgins’ Spectator-editorial song list, asking such pressing questions as, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” and, “Why can’t the English speak?”.  But a clever tweak in the staging of the final scene vindicates all, and the audience leaves with the feeling that Eliza has been done justice.

This production is the first to feature a black Eliza, and although the casting is race blind, the vision of old-Etonian Harry Hadden-Paton (Higgins) berating Amara Okereke’s Eliza for being ‘dirty’ is shocking in a way that the same words directed at Audrey Hepburn could never be. The class dynamics of the script take on a wider significance, a vision of colonialism in miniature.

Okereke’s knack for slipping between cockney and cut-glass English in moments of high emotion is masterful, and her singing voice is superlative. The sets (Michael Yeargan) are evocative, the costumes (Catherine Zuber) sumptuous: the hats alone deserve a paragraph of this review. The addition of the ENO more than does justice to Frederick Loewe’s classic score, with some fun sound effects from the orchestra pit for good measure.

Technically, Sher’s production of My Fair Lady predates Bridgerton, having opened in New York in 2018. Yet, from the race-blind casting to its gleeful embrace of the occasional anachronism (drag queens dropping into splits during “Get Me to the Church on Time” evoke the ballrooms of 1980s New York more than the music halls of Edwardian London), this production will find it hard to escape comparisons with its glossier TV cousin. Its equally glossy bastard child, Pretty Woman the Musical, is staged five minutes’ walk away. Yet, with its ebullient energy and surprisingly modern outlook, My Fair Lady more than holds its own among its more youthful relations.

Evie Prichard

Playing 7 May – 27 August 2022 at the London Coliseum.

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