My Fair Lady: This staging of Bernard Shaw’s morality tale is a roof-raising success

Leeds Playhouse and Opera North's 2024 co-production of My Fair Lady
Leeds Playhouse and Opera North's 2024 co-production of My Fair Lady - Pamela Raith

Leeds Playhouse has set a very high bar for itself where the stage musical is concerned. In 2021, in co-production with Opera North, it enthralled audiences with its rendering of the Stephen Sondheim classic A Little Night Music.

Then, last Christmas, it went one better with its universally acclaimed staging of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! These shows are, unquestionably, hard acts to follow.

Glad to report, however, that director James Brining’s latest foray into musical theatre – a staging of Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Loewe’s much-loved My Fair Lady (their 1956 adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion) – is another roof-raising success. Like the Sondheim, this piece is a co-production with Opera North, proving that the collaboration between the two companies is gloriously beneficial to both.

The show is built around designer Madeleine Boyd’s evocation of Victorian architecture. A surprisingly versatile, tiled structure that stands in equally well for the Mayfair Tavern and the exterior of phonetics professor Henry Higgins’s grand home, the design is emblematic of a production that is impressively sure-footed in all departments.

From the opening scene – in which our protagonist, the impoverished flower seller Eliza Doolittle, becomes acquainted with Higgins – Brining’s staging evokes the rigid class distinctions of Edwardian England as vividly as ITV’s famous 1970s drama series Upstairs, Downstairs. As Higgins accepts a bet from retired army officer Colonel Pickering that he can use his phonetic skills to train Eliza to sound and behave like an English aristocrat, it is clear that the young woman is considered little more than a pawn in a rich men’s game.

In the morality tale that follows even Higgins’s own mother (a no-nonsense matriarch, played with Wildean humour by the superb Miranda Bevin) is revolted by his arrogance and panoply of chauvinisms. The show’s bold storytelling requires careful casting, and Brining and his team have done an exceptional job in fitting performers to characters.

Whether she is doing a cockney turn in the early musical number Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? or finding her voice in the defiant song Without You, Katie Bird has both the emotional and vocal range demanded by the role of Eliza. John Hopkins is equally well-suited to play Higgins, his bluntness and seeming sense of entitlement providing an increasingly thin cover for his underlying personal inadequacies.

In a universally brilliant cast, Richard Mosley-Evans also shines as Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle. In a fabulously comic performance as the suddenly enriched dustman, the Welsh baritone brings a marvellous vocal depth to proceedings (not least in the evergreen Get Me to the Church on Time).

The production’s band – under the baton of conductor and musical director Oliver Rundell – plays Loewe’s music with the necessary lightness and vigour.

Leeds Playhouse is making a habit of staging near-perfect productions of musicals that are as accomplished in social commentary as they are in plot, music and song. Once again, Brining and his company are richly deserving of the accolades that will, no doubt, be coming their way.

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