Theatre reviews: My Fair Lady | Sinbad The Pantomime

Bartlett Sher’s production of My Fair Lady does full justice to Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 original, and to the George Bernard Shaw play that inspired it, writes Joyce McMillan

My Fair Lady, Playhouse, Edinburgh ****

Sinbad The Pantomime, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh ****

Like many other great playwrights of the English stage, George Bernard Shaw was an Irishman; and it’s that sharp outsider’s view that underpins the sparkling wit and energy of his 1913 play Pygmalion, on which Lerner and Loewe’s smash-hit 1956 musical My Fair Lady is based.

My Fair Lady PIC: Marc BrennerMy Fair Lady PIC: Marc Brenner
My Fair Lady PIC: Marc Brenner

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him," wrote Shaw, of the huge role of accent and speech in the British class system; and so when Professor Higgins, speech expert, meets Eliza Doolittle, flower seller, the scene is set for one of the great archetypal stories of class and gender politics, as he turns her whole life into an experiment in turning a low-life flower-girl into a Duchess, purely by training her to “talk proper”.

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The magic of Lerner and Loewe, though, is to turn Shaw’s formidably “talky” play into a true postwar romance, made in that great moment that also gave us classic musicals like South Pacific and Oklahoma. They don’t distort Shaw’s play to the extent of creating a marital happy ever after for Higgins and Eliza. Yet they make the story glitter with lyrical emotion, from Eliza’s yearning opening number All I Want Is A Room Somewhere, through her admirer Freddie’s gorgeous love song On The Street Where You Live, to the gruff emotional awakening of Higgins’s I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.

The result is one of the finest playlists of songs ever to grace the musical stage, still irresistible even though the gap between our times and the show’s premier is now much longer than the gap between My Fair Lady and the play that originally inspired it; and although Bartlett Sher’s production, originally for English National Opera, is a fairly conventional old thing in many ways – full of revolving sets, operatic singing, and beautiful idealised-London backdrops by Michael Yeargan – it does full justice both to Shaw’s drama and Lerner and Loewe’s score.

Charlotte Kennedy is a lovely, complicated Eliza, and Michael D Xavier a handsome and witty Higgins; while Adam Woodyatt as her old Dad Alf Doolittle, with a terrific chorus, provides some superb, all-dancing comic relief, not least in a show-stopping version of Get Me To The Church On Time. And it’s a joy to hear Alex Parker and his ten-piece orchestra delivering this gorgeous score from the Playhouse pit; in a brilliant evening of lovingly-crafted old-fashioned theatre that lifts the heart, and leaves us singing, on the frosty way home.

Meanwhile, down in the Honest Toun, there’s a faint ripple of class tension in John Binnie’s latest Musselburgh panto, Sinbad The Pantomime, as handsome Sinbad – son of the penniless but beguiling Dame Betty Brunton – finds that his quest to go to sea and find his fortune has attracted the love and affection of rebellious Rosie, the daughter of nasty local rich woman Moneygrabba.

This is not a show, though, that is likely to be distracted for long from the basic business delivering endless panto fun, complete with barrowloads of audience participation, jolly songs, and the obligatory daft underwater scenes. From cheerful High Street backdrops to dancing teams of local children, Sinbad is the local community panto that has it all; along with a professional cast – led by Calum Barbour as Sinbad, Graham Crammond as Dame Betty, and Wendy Seager as all the villains – who never miss a beat, when it comes to connecting with their Musselburgh audience, and offering them the merriest possible Christmas night out.

My Fair Lady until 7 January; Sinbad The Pantomime until 31 December.

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