Melissa Blease reviews Bath Operatic and Dramatic Society’s My Fair Lady, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 24 February
The award-winning Bath Operatic and Dramatic Society, founded way back in 1894, has a reputation for producing memorable, elaborate productions – and this year’s outing further burnished its credentials, with BODS bringing My Fair Lady, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play by librettist and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, to the Bath stage.
The tale of Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle and her relationship with her mentor (and phoneticist) Henry Higgins is an enduringly popular yarn. Multiple stage revivals on both sides of the Atlantic have broken box office records and garnered massive critical acclaim, while the 1964 film version, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, is a staple of the American Film Institute’s top 100 Greatest Films of All Time charts.
While cynics might say that a production of one of the world’s best-loved, best-known musicals is set to be sure-fire hit from the get-go, it could equally be argued that, with so much to live up to, there’s a considerable risk of falling short: the show relies heavily on unswerving vocal talent, skilful choreography and a fully-consolidated ensemble cast, leading pundits to frequently refer to the best productions as “the perfect musical”. BODS can rest assured, then, that with their 2018 Bath outing they achieved perfection.
Madeleine Woolgar is just luvverly as Eliza: the feisty survivor, frustrated by the constraints of poverty and neglect, vulnerable yet tenacious, determined and intelligent… and flaunting a vocal range that swoops and soars in all the right directions, at exactly the right times.
Steve Huggins’ Henry Higgins brings out the best and the worst in both his own complex character and Eliza’s. Academically brilliant, arrogant yet deeply conflicted, Higgins is the original master of the art of ‘mansplaining’, and it’s left to Higgins’ affable friend Colonel Pickering (the totally charming Huw Morgan) to unite, divide and generally referee the pair as the friend’s bet on Higgins being able to turn Eliza into a ‘lady’ leads to unintended consequences for everybody concerned.
As the drama rolls along, those hits (and lots of accompanying fancy footwork) just keep on coming, with BODS’ musical director Peter Blackwood and an impressive orchestra all hard at work down in the pit throughout, and deserving as much credit as those in the onstage spotlight: With a Little Bit of Luck; On the Street Where You Live (a fabulous solo performance from Sean Bailey as the lovesick Freddy Eynsford-Hill); Get Me to the Church on Time; The Rain in Spain; I Could Have Danced All Night; the wistful, moving I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face… and, of course, Eliza and her friends’ ‘big moment’ Wouldn’t It Be Lovely – sheer emotive perfection.
As Eliza declares before we learn the story’s denouement, “the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated”. From a critics’ perspective, the difference between a memorable musical theatre production and a lacklustre one is not how well particular cast members perform the main roles, but how adept a whole ensemble can be in bringing magic to the stage. BODS have brought magic to the Theatre Royal Bath yet again. After you’ve seen this show, you too will feel like dancing all night.