The ending of My Fair Lady (differing radically from its source, Shaw’s Pygmalion) poses a problem not unlike that of The Taming Of The Shrew: having been treated by Henry Higgins for the previous three hours or so of playing time, at best, like a lump of clay for him to re-model, how is Eliza Doolittle to play her return to him? In Daniel Evans’ excellent Sheffield revival, Carly Bawden and Dominic West face off against each other, silently but knowingly, across the front of the Crucible stage. It is enough to indicate that this is a match of neither delusion nor subjugation.
Lerner and Loewe’s musical is among almost everyone’s favourites; we set out to like it. Nevertheless, Evans does it full justice. He and choreographer Alistair David are particularly strong on ensemble sequences: one feels a genuine sense of community and a kind of dance-banter among the denizens of Covent Garden market, to the extent that, at the performance I saw, “Get Me To The Church On Time” drew a mid-show standing ovation from some punters.
This sense of playfulness without mockery pervades the production: Paul Wills’s design makes use of a motif of the great glass arch of Covent Garden, with the result that Higgins’ library looks as if all those musty tomes and wax-cylinder phonographs stand within a gigantic Wurlitzer jukebox.
The musical’s Higgins is less of an overgrown schoolboy than Shaw’s original; although West enjoys the odd fifth-form moment, he is never puerile, and is intermittently rumbustious rather than persistently like a bull in a china shop. He also treads an agile line between singing and the Rex Harrisonian Sprechgesang we now expect in the role. As his colleague Col. Pickering, Anthony Calf is a middle-aged gentleman rather than an elderly one; he seems perceptibly younger than Martyn Ellis’s rotund, occasionally glowering but still disarming Alfred Doolittle. What Bawden’s Eliza may lack in captivating magnetism she makes up in vivacity and a fine voice.
Britons’ fondness for this tale, with or without songs, may (as I observed on Pygmalion’s last major revival) testify to our continuing preoccupation with matters of class; Evans and his company, however, purvey class of a different kind.