My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible

Dominic West's Henry Higgins is overshadowed by emerging talent Carly Bawden's Eliza Doolittle

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The Independent Culture

When Dominic West returned to the stage as Iago in his native Sheffield last year after achieving international TV success in The Wire, it was the performance of his co-star Lily James, then fresh from drama school, which caught many eyes.

Last night, following yet more success for the actor – not least as the booze-soaked anchor in the brilliant The Hour - it was once again an emerging talent graduated just three years ago who ended up stealing the show with an astonishingly accomplished performance.

Carly Bawden’s Eliza Doolittle was a brilliant all round portrayal of the young Covent Garden flower girl scaling the social ladder from London street poverty to the gilded salons of Edwardian gentility.

Bawden’s acting, her comic timing, singing, dancing and stage presence were all faultless and earned her – and her more famous main man – a joyous standing ovation on a buzzy, exciting night at the Crucible.

Yet West, despite a couple of stumbles, was an inspired choice to play the part of Professor Henry Higgins. Like pretty much everything else you might have seen him in on television of late, from the hard-bitten McNulty in the Baltimore cop drama to a menacing serial killer Fred West in Appropriate Adult, he is outstanding on stage as the emotionally illiterate Svengali who picks up the “crushed cabbage leaf” from the floor of the old fruit and veg market and turns her into a “proper” lady. 

West and Anthony Calf, equally superb as amiable sidekick Colonel Pickering, build a hugely entertaining comic rapport as the stuffy old bachelors whose ordered lives are lit up by the arrival of the cockney street vendor with a heart of gold and a voice like a bag of spanners. 

Martyn Ellis, who plays Eliza’s grasping coalman-cum-rhetorician father Alfred, delivers the knock out song and dance routine of the night with "Get Me to the Church on Time" in which he moves surprisingly lithely for such a big man. But there are plenty of other pinnacles too in a visually gorgeous, skillfully choreographed and lovingly orchestrated evening, not least at the Ascot races where Eliza delivers a masterclass in deadpan as she strays from the agreed script of weather and health to win the heart of chinless wonder Freddy Eynsford-Hill. 

Richenda Carey meanwhile commands the stage each time she appears as the long suffering Mrs Higgins.  My Fair Lady has thrown up some classic pairings over the years: Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in the 1956 original and Martine McCutcheon and Jonathan Pryce in the 2001 National Theatre revival. West and Bawden are in illustrious company and they thoroughly deserve to be there.

To 26 January 2013