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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