My Fair Lady, review: HAODS, The Capitol, Horsham, November 12-16

My Fair Lady. Sam Taylor Photography
My Fair Lady. Sam Taylor Photography

After tackling the iconic Singin’ in the Rain back in May, the HAODS team haven’t exactly gone easy on themselves for their November production.

Instead, they’ve taken on another huge challenge – My Fair Lady.

Kev Summers as Alfred P. Doolittle. Sam Taylor Photography

Kev Summers as Alfred P. Doolittle. Sam Taylor Photography

This classic movie, which was first screened in 1964, may actually be more beloved than Gene Kelly’s cinematic splash, and it certainly offers more tempestuous drama and comedy.

Adapted from the Lerner and Loewe stage show, which itself was based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the film starred the wonderful Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in the lead roles. On top of that, the picture was bursting with unforgettable songs and witty dialogue, cementing its reputation as one of the best movie musicals ever.

So with this in mind, how does HAODS’ version compare? Very well it turns out. The action and locations have been adapted smartly for the Capitol stage, with handsome painted backdrops, lavish costumes and a particularly well constructed living room set that presents a stuffy upper class home in early 20th century Britain.

The plot concerns the beautiful but simple flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Abi Pamment) who meets the snobbish phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Andrew Donovan) and linguist Colonel Pickering (David Johnson). After receiving some less than constructive criticism from Higgins regarding her Cockney accent, Eliza asks for elocution lessons. Higgins, amused by this idea, makes a bet with Pickering that his lessons will allow Eliza to successfully pass herself off as royalty.

Abi Pamment as Eliza Doolittle with Andrew Donovan as Henry Higgins. Sam Taylor Photography

Abi Pamment as Eliza Doolittle with Andrew Donovan as Henry Higgins. Sam Taylor Photography

It’s the start of a rocky and emotional journey as Eliza’s agonisingly slow progress pushes both teacher and student to the limit...and forces them to confront the surprising feelings that they develop for each other.

Abi Pamment gives a simply ‘loverly’ performance as Eliza, presenting an uneducated but naturally sharp young woman who’s forthright, driven and doesn’t back down. She’s definitely funny, but she handles the more dramatic moments sensitively as well, conveying Eliza’s feelings of abandonment and isolation in the second act. She does well with both her accents too, especially in the ‘Rain in Spain’ scene, making that sudden switch from Cockney to posh feel as miraculous as it should.

Andrew Donovan is on fine form as the cruel and dismissive Henry Higgins. He has some funny moments – mainly in his noisy rendition of ‘I’m an Ordinary Man’ – but he mostly makes Higgins as unlikable as possible, only giving us a few precious glimpses of his warmer side. Even in the final scene, when Higgins acknowledges his true feelings for Eliza, you get the sense that a romantic relationship between the two won’t be easy.

Kev Summers is delightful as Eliza’s mischievous father Alfred P. Doolittle, presenting a man who wants to ring every drop of fun from every situation, stumbling happily (and drunkenly) through life without much of a thought for the future.

David Johnson gives arguably the most subtle performance of the show as Colonel Pickering. On the surface, he seems to have the same snooty attitude as Higgins, but his treatment of Eliza is far more compassionate. He laughs at her, of course, but his facial expressions and manner of speaking to her hint at a genuine fondness from the beginning.

Lynn Andrews is clearly on Eliza’s side straight away as the housekeeper Mrs Pearce. She still looks down at Eliza a bit, but conveys an obvious concern for her wellbeing. Tess Kennedy expresses this too as Mrs Higgins, taking a shine to Eliza pretty quickly and aiming a fair amount of parental disdain at her rude son. She may sometimes speak in the same haughty tones as Henry, but it’s usually just to put the arrogant professor in his place, which is fun to watch.

The character of Freddy Eynsford-Hill plays an odd role in this story. He’s a young man who becomes smitten with Eliza after her infamous outburst at the Ascot horse race, and he almost pulls her away from Higgins. But, once Eliza has decided who she truly wants, Freddy is forgotten about quickly and there isn’t really a resolution to his story. It could be that Freddy’s function is just to elicit feelings of jealously in Higgins, but Cameron Rowell truly gets the most out of this character while he’s onstage. His Freddy is foolishly and hopelessly in love, and unafraid of expressing this in amusing and over-refined ways. The number ‘On The Street Where You Live’ is one of the best in the show and surely has audience members rooting for Freddy instead of Higgins.

There are too many performances to talk about individually but the supporting cast all do very well in their roles. The actors include: Jane O’Sullivan as Mrs Eynsford-Hill, Debbie Stevens as Mrs Hopkins, Josh Watts as Lord Boxington, Sian Elston as Lady Boxington, Paul Milwright as the landlord, Jessica and Ellie Attfield as the maids and Howard Collis as Gerard the Butler.

The singing, as expected of HAODS, is excellent all round and musical director James Tunstill and his band bring all the classic tunes to life. This, coupled with the clever choreography, makes for a fun, high-energy production – and one that’s full of love for previous versions of the tale thanks to director Yvonne Chadwell.

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