To be honest, I set out on this commission with misgivings. My Fair Lady is undoubtedly one of the great musicals, but it is not an easy show for an amateur society to do well. Its set pieces such as ‘I’m getting married in the morning’ and the Ascot scene work superbly on a big stage with complex sets and fabulous costumes and backed by a full orchestra. And Higgins and Eliza are two of the more demanding parts in musical theatre: if they are done well, the production will fly, but if not, it will fall apart. So what sort of fist would Ferndown Phoenix, with the physical restrictions of the Barrington and a finite pool of talent, make of it?
I was very pleasantly surprised. The small stage dictates simple choreography and backcloths that are serviceable at best, but apart from a jacket of Freddie Eynsford-Hill that was an excruciating two sizes too small for him, the costumes are excellent: the purple and white theme of the Ascot scene is a match for Cecil Beaton’s famous black and white costumes in the film. The limitations of just one keyboard to accompany the singers are obvious, but MD Lee Redwood works hard and successfully to minimise them.
Happily, the quality of the performances overcomes these practical disadvantages. The chorus is unflaggingly enthusiastic and there is barely a weak link among the supporting cast. Lee Neal showed a surprising unfamiliarity with the words of ‘With a little bit of luck’, but plays Alfred P Doolittle with great verve and good humour. It is a pity that he has been given some distracting business, tracking down a flea, to do during his important act 1 speech on the subject of morality. Bernard Gardner is a somewhat self-effacing Pickering, all benign concern for Eliza’s welfare. Rachel Leggett is a younger than usual Mrs Pearce, but conveys self-possessed authority, while Sally Ager as Mrs Higgins is a grande dame but also clearly a fun person.
In the central performance, Chelsea Ball is a very fine Eliza. By definition, the character develops hugely during the play and Chelsea is a good enough actress to convey how Eliza’s attitudes, especially to those closest to her, change. I liked particularly her playing of the scene where she first visits Higgins’s house: she is always defiant, but that defiance is usually portrayed as the by-product of nerves, whereas here it’s just the way she is – sparky, cheeky and self-confident. She could give even more to the heart-rending pause between ‘Yes, Freddie’ and ‘I’m all finished here’ in the act 2 scene where she re-visits Covent Garden but isn’t recognised because she is now a lady; the longer that pause, the more effective it is. Eliza must make the audience love her and Chelsea achieves that, helped by a charming singing voice, although in ‘I could have danced all night’ she was occasionally just below the note.
Jeremy Mills plays Higgins not as an arrogant boor and bully but as a man who is so unworldly that he simply does not know how to behave other than the way he does, which casts him in a more sympathetic light. It is a good, interesting interpretation, and Jeremy effortlessly dominates the stage. He takes a while to warm up, rather to the detriment of ‘Why can’t the English’, and his delivery of ‘Why can’t a woman’ is strangely jerky, but he nails ‘I’ve grown accustomed to her face’ as effectively as any Higgins I have heard.
A good test of Higgins and Eliza is how close to the edge of the seat you are during their dramatic scene after returning from the Embassy ball; I nearly fell off the front of mine. And they and Pickering showed me that ‘The rain in Spain’ can be not only very funny but rather moving.
It is well worth catching this production on 21 September at 7.30 or 22 September at 2.30 or 7.30.