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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

My Fair Lady, theatre review

Published in Northings

My Fair Lady

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

ALTHOUGH IT has clocked up 60 years of crowd-pleasing entertainment, Pitlochry Festival Theatre is a relative newcomer to the musical. This is surprising. Not only do big-hearted shows such as 2009′s Whisky Galore – a Musical! go down tremendously well with audiences holidaying in Perthshire, but also the company makes such a splendid job of them. You’d think they’d been doing them since the day John Stewart erected his tent at Knockendarroch in 1951.

Take My Fair Lady. The Lerner and Loewe musical sets the summer season off to a roaring start. With the whole company on stage, it is the very definition of an ensemble production, the fulcrum around which the remaining five plays revolve, unifying the cast and galvanising the audience.

As with Whisky Galore and last year’s Kiss Me Kate, director John Durnin gives musical director Jon Beales full rein to exploit the company’s musical skills. The score is performed not only by the band tucked away at the back of Paul Smith’s black-and-white set, but also by the actors who carry their various instruments with them on stage.

It gives the show a celebratory, communal feel, a sense that everyone’s doing their bit. This is in keeping with a production that, necessarily, stars actors who can sing rather than singers who can act. There are no West End histrionics here, no larynx-stretching solos, just honest renditions of some fabulous songs. The show is all the more human for it.

And, actually, My Fair Lady is so heavily indebted to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, it could hardly be any other way. It is the story of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl who is transformed into a well-spoken lady by Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, and his sidekick Colonel Pickering. Unusually for a musical, it retains much of Shaw’s political analysis and his still pertinent portrait of a high-handed upper-class elite failing to account for the humanity of those less privileged. There are as many verbal volleys as there are hit tunes, which means the actor playing Doolittle has to chart a rags-to-riches journey without avoiding the contradictions of her Cinderella-style transformation.

Kate Quinnell achieves this perfectly, never losing her streetwise bite however pretty her frocks become. She is in good company with Robin Harvey Edwards as a genial Pickering and Dougal Lee as a self-absorbed Higgins. Together they drive a production that is as thought-provoking as it is contagiously enjoyable.

In repertory until October.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Henceforward . . ., theatre review

Published in Northings

Henceforward

Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 18 June 2011

THE PIVOTAL scene in My Fair Lady, the centrepiece of this year’s Pitlochry programme, is the one in which Eliza Doolittle, a former flower girl, passes herself off as an elegant lady at a grand social gathering. Playing in the same season, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 play Henceforward . . . revolves around a similar transformation. In this case, it is a life-like robot passing herself off as a middle-aged man’s fiancĂ©e during a meeting to discuss the custody of his daughter.

In the Lerner and Loewe musical, Eliza pulls it off and captures our hearts. In Ayckbourn’s version, the robot doesn’t exactly fail the ordeal – in fact, she does surprisingly well – but she survives with such mechanical clumsiness that we have to laugh.

If only we laughed more often in this laboured comedy. The funny scene comes after the interval, once we have endured a first half that is little but a long, mirthless set-up. Mildly amusing though the play becomes, it’s not really worth the wait.

Ayckbourn’s setting is a semi-dystopian future where gangs of lawless girls rule the streets, the world is connected by TV monitors and ready meals cook themselves. Here, living in mechanised isolation, high-tech composer Jerome (Alan Steele) tries to break a bad case of writer’s block in between lovelessly seducing a young woman from the escort agency. Meanwhile his malfunctioning robot trots back and forth with the laundry just to keep herself busy.

Ayckbourn’s theme is to do with the atomisation of modern society, the way we have become more connected to our often malfunctioning technology and less connected to each other. If this was true in the late-80s when the play was first staged, it is even more so today in our age of the iPhone and the internet, but Henceforward . . . gives little dramatic momentum to the idea. There is nothing in Jerome’s morose behaviour that makes him seem like a spokesperson for our alienated generation. By the time we reach the reconciliation of Jerome and his estranged wife, it seems less like a way to resolve a deep dilemma than a convenient way to give the play a happy ending.

Bright performances by Helen Logan and Shirley Darroch, taking turns as the robot, are entertaining but not enough to give the show purpose. It doesn’t help that the pace of Ken Alexander’s production is repeatedly broken by a series of video phone calls from one of Jerome’s friends. Neither relevant nor funny, this subplot merely slows the already torpid action. If there is a way to make the play work – and it was lauded on its debut – Alexander hasn’t found it.

In repertory until October.

 

© Mark Fisher 2011

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