My Fair Lady review: Amara Okereke shines as Eliza Doolittle in Bartlett Sher’s glossy musical

Director wrings every last drop of comic potential out of classic musical

<p>Harry Hadden-Paton, Amara Okereke and Malcolm Sinclair in ‘My Fair Lady'</p>

Harry Hadden-Paton, Amara Okereke and Malcolm Sinclair in ‘My Fair Lady'

Watching a star form before your eyes is a magical feeling. In Bartlett Sher’s revolutionary take on My Fair Lady, now playing in the West End four years after it opened on Broadway, Amara Okereke is that star. As Eliza Doolittle, the 25-year-old gives one of the most enthralling stage performances of the year, transforming from a gobby Cockney flower seller to a member of the genteel English middle classes at the hands of Professor Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton). The show, with its changed ending, may divide musical theatre purists, but there’s no denying Okereke’s talent.

As the production opens on the dank streets of Covent Garden, we meet a loud, roaring Eliza. That why-I-oughta energy dissipates as she lets herself dream, light shining out of her face while she sings in lilting soprano tones for “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”. But even when Eliza learns her Ps and Qs and wins upper-class approval, she doesn’t lose that defiant spark; her tongue remains mischievously glued to the inside of her cheek.

In a production focused on modernity, it’s hard to elicit sympathy for Henry Higgins – a man who calls Eliza a “barbarous wretch” and “deliciously low”. Hadden-Paton leans into this, instilling Henry with a chaotic energy and manic glint in his eyes. When the pair argue they make great opponents, but little sense as a couple. That dynamic works for the updated, potentially controversial conclusion.

Sher makes the smart decision to play up the laughs in Alan J Lerner’s book, every line laden with sarcasm and wrung for its comic potential. The ensemble morph into broad, hilarious stereotypes, walking into rooms with their noses firmly in the air as the high society toffs. They deliciously over-enunciate the word “here” as they sing: “Everyone who should be hee-yuh is hee-yuh” on “Ascot Gavotte”.

That comedic slant is clearest in the casting of stand-up Stephen K Amos as Eliza’s alcoholic father Alfred P Doolittle. Is Amos the world’s greatest singer or dancer? No. His drunk-uncle-at-a-wedding energy, however, only adds to Alfred’s pathetic character. In the more demanding “Get Me to the Church on Time”, Amos is all but drowned out by the swirling hurricane of can-can dancers and drag performers.

The cast of ‘My Fair Lady'

It’s in these group numbers that you can really smell the money in My Fair Lady. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are intricately designed, luxurious fabrics dragging on the floor while jewels glitter so brightly you could see them from space. At one point, the entire face of Mrs Higgins (Vanessa Redgrave) is fully obscured by a particularly large hat. It’s an unfortunate case of poor blocking, but cutting down on Redgrave’s stage time feels sacrilegious given her part is already small.

Similar detail has been put into the set design, particularly Professor Higgins’s rotating home, with its rich mahogany furnishings and spiral staircase. In comparison, the outside world is far less swanky, the dank streets of Covent Garden and Alfred’s pub a weirdly cheap-looking am-dram set-up. But even that isn’t enough to distract from the spectacle of My Fair Lady, a hypnotic show that keeps you in Eliza’s captivating world with an unmissable performance.

‘My Fair Lady’ runs at the Coliseum Theatre until 27 August

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