Professor Higgins and co make a welcome West End return

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

AFTER an absence of four decades, My Fair Lady makes a welcome return to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Adapted from Pygmalion, Bernard Shaw's classic tale of penniless cockney sparrow made good and with lyrics and music by Lerner and Loewe, Cameron Mackintosh has turned My Fair Lady into a lavish spectacle, punctuated by songs that have inspired generations.

At the heart of the story is Eliza Doolittle, a simple flower girl whose mispronunciation of the English language is nothing short of lamentable.

Help, though, is at hand - in the form of Professor Henry Higgins, a role made famous by the splendid Rex Harrison. A hard act to follow, Alex Jennings fills his shoes admirably, epitomising male chauvenism to perfection, yet at the same time, cleverly aligning naivety - clearly evident in 'A hymn to him', in which he asks, "Why can't a woman be more like a man'? - with a certain boyish charm, thus making the character extremely likeable if, at times, somewhat exasperating.

It is Higgins who undertakes the seemingly impossible task of transforming Eliza; of, in fact, passing her off as a duchess at the embassy ball and in this, he is encouraged, albeit in a small wager, by Colonel Pickering (Malcolm Sinclair), a man of few words but whose facial expressions convey a great deal more. Sober, he is a delight; drunk, doubly so.

Dennis Waterman, well-remembered for his roles in television's The Sweeney and Minder, stamps his own authority on the role, originally played by the great Stanley Holloway, that of Eliza's hard-drinking, hard-talking father, Alfred P Doolittle.

A man of few principles and, in his own way, as chauvenistic as his daughter's mentor, he should, by rights, be detestable. That audiences adore him, owes much to Waterman's enthusiastic portrayal.

'With A Little Bit of Luck', backed by an orchestra of dustbin lids, washboards, kettles and the like, as well as 'Get Me To The Church On Time' are guaranteed to lift spirits and set feet tapping.

Sadly, it is with Eliza that I have my one and only criticism. With no disrespect to Joanna Riding, whose portrayal is touchingly endearing, with its ingenious mix of overt brashness and underlying vulnerability, she appears far older than her 20 years would suggest. A minor consideration, however, and one that can easily be overlooked.

With a supporting cast that boasts the likes of Peter Prentice, as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza's love interest and played here as a slightly foppish and highly-strung young man; Dilys Laye, as Higgins' kindly house-keeper, Mrs Pearce and, lastly, but by no means least, Caroline Blakiston, as the professor's long-suffering mother; the evening offers a company that slips as effortlessly into minor roles as Eliza drops her H's and a script that is witty, often hilarious and yet, at times, patently moving.

All told, My Fair Lady is a feast for eyes and ears. Long may it grace London's West End.

My Fair Lady, Directed by Trevor Nunn; Choreographer, Matthew Bourne; Designer, Anthony Ward; Lighting Designer, David Hersey; Musical Supervisor, David White; Music Director, Nick Davies. STARRING: Alex Jennings, Joanna Riding, and Dennis Waterman. Theatre Royal Drury Lane London. Nearest Tube: Covent Garden.