ESOSOC - My Fair Lady
Harlequin Redhill - 3rd May 2018

My Fair Lady is really a play with music rather than a purpose built musical, being essentially the story of Shaw's Pygmalion (though with a different ending). Nevertheless, much of the music is tuneful and memorable; something not so easily said about some very modern musicals.

Director Kevin Stuart had set it in the 1920s with "flappers", rather than in 1912 as written. This was probably a wise decision as ESOSOC can boast a goodly number of young ladies, whose attire, if set in 1912, would of necessity have been more conservative.

Kevin had a richly talented and deep layered cast to work with and lead players of rare talent. Damien de Roche has played Professor Henry Higgins previously - as his programme note mention - and he is made to play Higgins. Superb diction, upper crust attitude with little concern for anyone's wellbeing but his own. A chauvinist par excellence. Playing opposite him as Eliza Doolittle was Helen Nightingale, who has worked professionally, and how it showed. Much of the show's drama and emotion came about because of her eventual transformation into a lady. Together these two titans of the show elevated an otherwise top class show into something approaching sheer magic.

Mark Nicholson as Colonel Hugh Pickering gave a well observed portrayal of the ex-military man Colonel who possessed the personal graces so lacking in Higgins. A fine foil for both the headstrong other two stars was Pickering.

James Turnbull was a cockney delight as Alfred P. Doolittle, carefree, devil may care and always happy provided he could cadge a drink or several, along with his drinking pals. James has a wealth of stage experience behind him and played the role to perfection. He was a very nifty mover too! Chris Powell, Steve Howe and Tom Allen were those pals Jamie, Harry and Tommy respectively and all three did wonderfully well.

Jonny Jones was the convincingly drippy Freddie Eynsford-Hill, a "Hooray Henry" besotted with Eliza. Jonny can certainly sing and showed how well too in his famous song "On the Street Where You Live".

Three others played key roles, all showing class and manners. Clare McFadden delighted as Mrs Higgins and if ever two words stole a show, her "Bravo Eliza" would be a strong contender. The dutiful and caring housekeeper Mrs Pearce was played in fine style by Jill Day and Catherine James was Mrs Eynsford-Hill, a lady of breeding, skilfully portrayed.

The egotistical Professor Karpathy - former pupil of Higgins - was played to near perfection by Tom Howland, complete with Hungarian accent!

The servants, Nicky Allen, Becky Bond, Emily Buck, Jon Ford, Keir Gilbert-Halliday, Philippa Kennedy, Adrian Martin and Lauren Payne, all played a significant and well-acted part, thus enhancing the show.

The ensemble - generous in number - provided several tasty cameo roles, all of which were thoroughly believable.

The ample Harlequin stage was wisely not packed with scenery, save in the detailed study and house of Professor Higgins which remained on stage almost throughout. Other scenes were simply set with skilful use of lighting pointing out the relevant action. I liked the Covent Garden market and street scenes with realistic looking gas lamp in particular. Covent Garden at night was splendidly set and lit for night-time too and the effect where Eliza, now taught to be a lady, returned but was not recognised was hauntingly moving.

Chorus scenes were well handled, and the choreographer Lindsay Swift's dance routines were carried out so very well. My, how the dancers and whole ensemble relished the action and how very much this was evident!

Musical director Jamie Cordell who is, effectively, the resident ESOSOC MD, used his band so well that the sound became more like a full orchestra playing in a concert hall. Despite this full sound, I was able to hear all the soloists clearly and the dynamics were a joy to behold. There were so many musical highlights that they became in effect one evening long highlight. Even so, I would be remiss if I did not especially commend the following musical items - "With a Little Bit of Luck", "The Rain in Spain", I could have danced all night, "On A Street Where You Live", "Show me", "I've Grown Accustomed to her face".

Ollie Cross was on sound and Will Perkins for Show LX on lighting. Both excellent!

There were some sumptuous costumes, especially for the ladies. The Ascot gowns were superb as were the splendid dancers in their rich red scanty costumes and the feather headdresses were special. Six beautiful jockey's silks also caught my eye. Lois Hatt, Sue Bracher and Auriol De Peyrecave must take huge credit.

Kirsten Massingham together with four assistants worked their magic on hair and make up, which was top class.

Finally, this memorable evening drew to an unwanted close with Higgins and the immortal line, "Eliza! Where the devil are my slippers?" The important inflection and pause after "Eliza" perfectly encapsulated the sheer quality of this mighty production.

Kevin's production had pace, continuity, vibrancy, joyous and touching moments and also aching sadness. Effective use of sound and lighting added much. This was a heady mixture concocted and served up for our pleasure by a director whose stage experience shows an expertise rarely seen in amateur theatre. To call this production amateur may be, technically, correct, but it is actually an absurdity. It would have graced any professional stage.

Jon Fox
NODA District 19