This garlanded production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical, fresh from Broadway, is the definition of a comforting night out at the theatre. It glides from one well-loved song to the next on an elegantly twirling set designed by Michael Yeargan.
Amara Okereke, as Eliza Doolittle, has a voice that fills the auditorium. It is a thrill to see Vanessa Redgrave as Henry Higgins’s mother – even if she is gone in the blink of an eye. Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton) himself is a foppish mashup of several Very English Types, from Colin Firth to Doctor Who – slightly bumbling and not nearly as patrician or haughty as Rex Harrison in the 1964 film.
But for those who have seen that screen classic, it is hard to list the reasons to come out for this faithful revival rather than stay at home with the movie. Under Bartlett Sher’s direction, the lack of invention feels like a missed opportunity.
It is thoroughly preserved in aspic – a time capsule of reassuringly good music, nice dresses and lots of insults towards women of a low social order – Eliza is a “cabbage-leaf” and “baggage” to be walloped if she is naughty. There are no knowing winks, twists or clever allusions to the here and now, except for one weak joke about Englishness and a tweaked final scene that left me puzzled and unconvinced.
Lerner and Loewe’s musical take on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion looks and feels much like a comforting Christmas show. At times, it begins to resemble pantomime in its over-acting and most certainly in Redgrave’s immense Ascot hat in the race day scene.
It is solidly performed all round but characterless and sedate. Funny moments – the turning point in Eliza’s elocution lessons and the disdain of her dustbin man father (Stephen K Amos) for his new middle-class life – never really catch fire.
Okereke’s Eliza has an exaggerated comedy walk: elbows pushed out, shrugged shoulders, stomps and squeals. We never see the softer, more vulnerable side to her character. Hadden-Paton, who starred in the original 2018 show in New York, brings a boyish charm to his part as the arrogant linguistics expert who scrapes a flower-seller off the streets of London so that he can transform her into a duchess. His derisory comments on women and the working-classes sound desperately antiquated – what would he make of the Urban Dictionary? And would his committed bachelorhood in I’m An Ordinary Man render him an incel today? But his point on regional accents as a classifier of social standing in Britain remains depressingly relevant in the assumptions we still make.
The chemistry between Higgins and Eliza never kicks in and there is no real hint of an awkward romance between them, even after Eliza has sung I Could Have Danced All Night. They are better at playing mutual animosity, although there is growly shouting rather than anything more subtle.
It is easy to see why this show was such a hit on Broadway, with its exportable vision of a bygone Britain filled with top hats, period lamp-posts and oak-panelled rooms. Could it be that this Disneyfied Englishness is simply built to win the hearts, and wallets, of West End tourists or is that too cynical?
My Fair Lady is at the Coliseum, London, until 27 August.