Conversations at the side-door, at the BBC Proms

16 Jul

‘My Fair Lady’ premiered friday morning at the Royal Albert Hall, as part of the BBC Proms Season. It is the first time the orchestra has recreated a musical all the way through, and they and the cast almost out-performed the cast of Lerner & Lowe’s 1964 film.

The actor playing Freddie, Jules Ovenden, talked about what made this production so successful: “It’s set in London, and is a way of celebrating London at this historic time. The cast are all hand-picked, and established stars in their own right.”

Jonathan, a cellist from the orchestra, admitted they had had more rehearsal time, but that it was necessary because there was “lots to put together.” Having practised since Monday, “We were well prepared.. the actors needed the extra help.”

Ovenden said most of the actors had only had two to three days’ rehearsal that week. Impressive, considering the extensive choreography involved in scenes like the dance at the races, and the opening one in Covent Garden’s flower market, where they wield umbrellas with prodigious skill. Gentlemen mince and hop-step with as much panache as the ladies.

“It is also a powerful piece politically in terms of sexual politics,” said Ovenden. The play centres around the conflict between flower-seller Eliza Doolittle, and Professor Henry Higgins, who agrees to give her elocution lessons after betting with a friend that he can pass her off as a lady. Ovenden plays the upper-class romantic Freddie, who becomes besotted with Eliza.

Higgins’ lines, such as “If you are naughty.. Mrs Pearce (the housekeeper) will wallop you with a broomstick,” look somewhat dated today. But the chemistry between the two leads outweighs the… less politically correct aspects of the adapted script of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Pygmalion’. The scene where Higgins mocks the working-class accents of the people in the market is a triumphant ode to cultural elitism.

A devotee of the original film can spot where the acting was amplified for the big stage: there are many more dance scenes. When Higgins wants to persuade Eliza to sit down at the races, he has to squat several times, which she copies, until he gets the message across by miming drinking tea. At another point, the significance of Eliza’s not needing any clothes when she sends back to her lodgings for her belongings, is drawn out at length by a convincing hunchback, who got a laugh after every sentence.

The vague homosexual tensions between Higgins and his friend Colonel Pickering – in lyrics like “Why can’t a woman be more like you?” are nicely understated. Both leads are strong, and Eliza delivered that immortal line, “I washed my face and ‘ands before I come, I did,” convincingly.

Other highlights at the Proms this year are Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No.9’ on Friday 20 July, and Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’ Tickets are available at:

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