Theatre in Wales

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I could have danced all night....

Aberystwyth Summer Musical

Aberystwyth Arts Centre- My Fair Lady , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , July-24-08
Aberystwyth Summer Musical by Aberystwyth Arts Centre- My Fair Lady “You poor dears have lost all your talent”; thus singing star Mary Martin to Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner when they played her the score of their new musical. The two thousand seven hundred Broadway performances of “My Fair Lady” that ensued just shows that showbiz insiders were as fallible then at predicting the future as any banker or economist in their own field today.

Even so it is an unlikely judgement. With three melodic classics, two barnstorming company numbers and two witty, reflective songs “My Fair Lady” contains more than enough to overcome the slightly dated content of class deference, and comes to full, vigorous and moving life in the now annual summer return of Michael Bogdanov and his regular creative team to Aberystwyth.

The emotional impact of “My Fair Lady” lives or dies in the transformation of Eliza. Unusually, this production has opted for two, alternating Elizas with the opening night given to Elin Llwyd. It is enough to say that in the key scene, her solo “I could have danced all night”, she was radiant. (And she was up against the powerful memory of Audrey Hepburn.) In the second act her transition from lustrous trophy escort, in a shimmering cream, to wounded but tough adversary, had all the emotion the part demanded.

Meanwhile, Eliza-in-waiting, Kate Quinnell was among the Covent Garden cockneys, dancing and singing in the ensemble with a vibrant earthiness. Ieaun Rhys, last seen on this stage as an oily aristocrat, the Marquess of Bath, here played dustman Doolittle, with the role’s traditional scale and exuberance.

In a cast, carefully selected, of twenty plus Carol Sloman played Mrs Eynsford Hill and the Queen of Transylvania with a haughty superciliousness. One of the best scenes was that in at Ascot where all the ensemble were able to don their most superior faces as they conducted their social gavotte, with Holly Hughes a commanding dance captain.

As for Henry Higgins, the master of voice and dialect, Michael Howe himself displayed a matching voice of great versatility, ranging in tone from a growl to a high pitch of astonishment. Having seen Tim Pigott-Smith in the same part recently, played very differently, the best comment is that Michael Howe is not his equal but the creator of a performance distinctively his own.

Regular musical director Michael Morwood, leading a band of six, can always be relied on for pieces of musical daring. Here one of the two show-stoppers “With a little bit of luck” was extended with a drum riff and Higgins’ tirade against women underscored with a powerful xylophone.

“My Fair Lady” has one quite distinctive feature. Its source material is not a short story, a novel or a justly forgotten stage play but a 1912 play, which far from being forgotten, has a rampaging life of its own as a key feminist work. In Alan Jay Lerner’s book there are great recognisable slabs of Bernard Shaw. But in changing the ending the new authors have a problem. Shaw does not do love, full stop.

Lerner’s book does have a structural flaw in that we are only shown Higgins driving Eliza on with his relentless lessons. But later the audience is told to believe that over this period of six months habits of familiarity, pattern and inter-dependence have grown, that a substrate for love has been laid down. But we are told this as narrative rather than seeing it dramatised.

The material thus does feel stretched which has nothing to do with the skill and sensitivity of the playing. However, boldly and wisely, this production has added to the script. They are only seven words but they are transforming ones that kick a piece of 1950’s anachronism deservedly out of the window.

If there is this quibble to be made about “My Fair Lady” it has nothing to do with this production which is absolutely in keeping with the standards expected from Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s summer offering.

When I reviewed “Pygmalion” (theatre-wales 24 September 2007) I puzzled over the fact that it was not being taken up by a London management. In the event it was and went on to win acclaim and awards. Similarly, in this season when two mega-budget musicals have hit Cardiff it is a pity that a musical with this array of Welsh talent on show cannot be seen on another stage in Wales beyond its four weeks in Aberystwyth.

“My Fair Lady” runs until 23rd August.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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