My Fair Lady ranks easily in the Top Ten of all-time musicals, and for Eastbourne Operatic and Dramatic Society it proved a top choice at the Devonshire Park Theatre last week.
EODS managers must be thrilled to bits, not merely with the quality of this production but – if we may be grubbily commercial – with the overflowing audiences. An innovative scheduling strategy of majoring on the matinees rather than evening paid off handsomely. The theatre was packed and audience feedback was hugely positive.
And, of course, the choice of show was perfect. When the audience are humming along with the overture, you know they need no winning over. Familiar yes, but over-familiar never: My Fair Lady is a true classic, brimming with terrific songs and telling an improbable story with humanity and human nature at its heart.
And that heart is Eliza, the “flah-girl” who becomes the redoubtable equal of any aristocrat. Winsome, funny, vulnerable but finally formidable, the role is daunting for any young actress, but seventeen-year-old Lily Potter rises to the task quite admirably. She sings angelically, she holds her own in the demanding and often abrasive duologues with Higgins, and she impressively manages that tricky emergence from frailty to feisty. Glance at Lily in stunning swirling ball-gown, and you have glimpsed Hepburn.
Higgins? Oh, Professor Higgins! Irritable, exasperating, disgracefully chauvinist, he deserves all the reproaches of his household staff, in their quite superb semi-chorus. But Nathan Charman’s Higgins too is human and maddeningly likeable. His musical numbers are a perfect mix of tune and sing-spiel and he has the character perfectly nailed.
A strongly cast production has no weaknesses in the supporting roles. Indeed, James Bell pretty much steals the show as a roguish, utterly engaging Alfred Doolittle. Revelling in every grin, gesture and swagger, James is totally in Doolittle’s skin: a master class from one of EODS’ finest servants. A deserved mention too, by the way, for his two excellent sidekicks Will Hopkins and Louis Livesey-Clare, whose trio with Alfred is a highlight.
Clem Jackson is equally convincingly in character as Colonel Pickering, long-suffering and bumbling companion to Higgins. Avril Francis-Bell is the essence of dowager-duchess elegance and pithy wisdom, Jenny Lawrenson is just right as the housekeeper with more common sense than Higgins and Pickering combined, and Kenny Giles delivers an expert cameo as Zoltan Kaparthy.
Eliza’s suitor Freddy is given an interestingly comic edge – presumably at his director’s bidding – by Tom McGovern. Tom, like Lily a current drama scholar at Bede’s School, delivers a witty and enjoyable characterisation, but purists may find this comic interpretation of that gorgeous lyrical number On the Street Where You Live as a touch of heresy!
Director and choreographer Sarah Dormady, however, has got so much right. The ensemble numbers are splendid, delivered with clarity and exuberance. An over-populated stage can be the downfall of the amateur theatre company, but resources here are well balanced, and her choreography is uncluttered and precise. Ascot Gavotte is absolutely delicious, while the street scenes burst with energy. The contrast of aristocratic black-and-white with artisans’ bold primary colours is an excellent device.
Andy Newell has designed a fine set, with monolithic pillars dominating the street scenes and smooth and seamless transitions to the excellent authentic interiors. Douglas Morgan lights the whole thing brightly and cheerfully.
The band, under joint direction of Carl Greenwood and Rob Cousins, gives breezy and accomplished support, although now and again the tempi seemed quite driven, when soloists might have been allowed that little bit of licence to elasticise.
But let us not quibble. This show is a triumph in every respect – artistic and commercial, but especially artistic. Well done to Eastbourne’s oldest theatre company: this is a milestone production. By Kevin Anderson.