My Fair Lady

Swanage Musical Theatre Company    The Mowlem Theatre, Swanage  KD Johnson  23 March  2023

To anyone with even a passing interest in musical comedy, My Fair Lady will be at least slightly familiar, whether from the 1964 film version, starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, or from any of the many times that it has been staged by amateur societies around the country. I have performed in it twice in the last 20 years and so its characters, themes and the songs are well known. People like it for that comfortable familiarity (like an old pair of slippers that might get thrown at them perhaps) and it could be described as “a banker”. It is, however, an expensive show to put on – requiring significant outlay on set and costume and I was pleased to see a capacity audience at the Mowlem Theatre tonight for this sumptuous production by the Swanage Musical Theatre Company.

From the moment that the 9 piece orchestra, led by Nick Stewart, struck up with the overture we knew that this was going to be a cut above the average – and it was. The curtains opened onto the familiar mêlée of street traders and opera goers at Covent Garden and I was immediately impressed by the 4 full height “marble” columns (well OK – half columns) on stage … “how on earth are they going to move those?” I thought – but in fact they didn’t. Those columns are ingeniously incorporated into every scene, whether it be Covent Garden, Higgins’ study, the street-scene in front of 27a Wimpole Street, the enclosure at Ascot or Mrs Higgins’ house. Two multi-sided scenery trucks downstage and some upstage flats and cloths transformed the scenes without moving those pillars. Top marks from me to the set design by Paul Baron, Paul Grover and (director) Karen Dormer-Woolley – I especially liked the nods to the origins of the story in the cancelled poster for Pygmalion at Covent Garden and the picture of George Bernard Shaw in Higgins’ study.

My Fair Lady hinges on the two massive rôles of Higgins and Eliza, portrayed here superbly by Brian Travers and Verity Aldous, but they are as nothing without the supporting players and the dancers and singers who bring the street scenes, the Ascot racecourse and the Ambassador’s Ball to life. Simon Wells plays a convincing Pickering (although a student of language and dialect would surely know how to pronounce Götterdämmerung) and Mike Hill is well cast as Doolittle – just how does he manage a drunken hiccough on cue? Chris Gutteridge is likeably foppish as Freddy and Julia Gadenne excels with comic lines and timing as Higgins’ exasperated mother.

Nearly everyone, other than the principals,  was doubling, tripling or even quadrupling parts – there were as many as 35 people on stage in one of the crowd scenes. The vocal talents of Adrian Lane were evident in several parts: around the brazier in Covent Garden, as Doolittle’s drinking buddy, as a Wimpole Street servant in black tailsuit, donning grey and a monocle to appear at Ascot and (briefly) in the ballroom scene – maybe that makes 5 parts!

The choreography (Karen Dormer-Woolley again with Brenda Ridout) was excellent throughout – though possibly restricted at times by the limited space on stage. The dance at the Ambassador’s Ball, in which Karpathy (Tim Marcus in beard and wig) finally gets to dance with Eliza, and the high-kicking routine in ‘Get Me To The Church On Time’ were notable examples.

There is a lot to like about this gorgeous production and congratulations are due to the cast, the production team and the orchestra alike. This was my first visit to the Mowlem theatre – especially dramatic at high-tide with the waves crashing against the seawall outside – and my first experience of the myriad talents of the Swanage Musical Theatre Company. Hopefully it will not be my last.