Bristol Hippodrome theatre review: My Fair Lady

Ginny Gould reviews My Fair Lady, presented by BLOC Productions at The Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 30 September

My Fair Lady is one of those films I’d have said that I knew, I’ve seen it lots of time. The truth is that I may have heard the music but I’ve never actually watched it, and that’s a very different thing.

So I went to see this musical with a vague sense of unease about the whole social classes, men telling women what to do, ‘bettering’ someone by means of making them act differently stuff. Which was completely compounded by the first scene in which Eliza is belittled, mocked and treated as sub-human for the crime of being poor with language that felt very uncomfortable (and the crowd laughing at it made me feel very shifty too). Of course, it becomes apparent later that in fact there are people around her that see very clearly the wrongness of what Henry Higgins is doing to Eliza and the second half is much more acceptable, but it was still a very difficult storyline for me to appreciate.

The story is based on a 1913 play about a man who brings a statue to life, and the 1964 approach to the story does highlight some issues around class and wealth. But misogyny was still very much acceptable in the 1960s and I think this shows, both in the way that Eliza is treated from the start and in the ending when we’re supposed to be happy that she’s returned to the house of a vile, rude, sexist and domineering man and she hands him the slippers instead of (as I was hoping she’d do) fashioning a makeshift knife from them and ripping off his testicles.

But apart from all that – after all I went to see a show with singing and dancing and nice costumes and I certainly got all that. My favourite parts by far were the crowd scenes, particularly the London streets which were lively and raucous and included a rather fantastic bag lady. Simon Vardakis made Alfred Doolittle a joy to watch (and of course he is a Bad Person, but unlike Henry Doolittle he freely admits it and makes no secret of how he uses and abuses those around him: I know which one I’d rather have a drink with). ‘With a Little Bit of Luck’ and ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’ in particular were riveting, and the amount of things happening on stage at one time meant it was impossible to see every perfect little detail.

Charlotte Hunter was perfect as Eliza, I loved her voice and was completely engaged with her character. I didn’t like Peter Cottell as Henry Higgins, but that was nothing to do with the acting or the quality of his voice, purely to do with the character he played far too well! The whole production was spot-on in fact and if I could have just got round the desire to jump up and tell Eliza to tell these men where to stick it it would have been fine.

Overall it’s a great big 10/10 for costumes, acting, stage, singing, dancing – almost all of the elements that make up a great show. I’m not sure I’d recommend taking my choice of companion who sat next to me like a black thundercloud muttering about social constructs, golems and hierarchies. The interval conversation was fairly typical of us; she’s one of life’s deep thinkers, I’m not.

Me –‘I loved ‘With a Little Bit of Luck’, wasn’t the dancing great?
Her- ‘It reinforced societal norms’
Me – ‘Oh. Well, Eliza’s voice is amazing isn’t it?’
Her- ‘She’s not a person, they’re creating an artificial construct’
Me- ‘Nice costumes’
Her- something about a 1886 book on anarchism and how hierarchies are maintained

One final thing: on the way back to get in the car we were in a crowd waiting for the lift when we had an encounter with an extremely well-spoken women and her friends who’d been to the same show. She started by telling me how to call the lift (it was already done) and then in front of me said to her friends that she thought she’d better do the ticket-swiping part of calling it too as I’d probably done it wrong. When we got in the lift she bellowed at me to ‘Hold that button’ ‘Press number 8!’ Shut the door now!’ in a majestically loud and commanding tone. There couldn’t have been a better illustration of how having a good accent doesn’t give you good manners.

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