My Fair Lady at the London Coliseum: turning back the clock with a lavish night of theatre

Barlett Sher’s revival of the Lerner & Loewe musical pulls modern morals out of an Edwardian spectacle

There’s plenty of ways to see theatre on the West End, but a night at Bartlett Sher’s My Fair Lady gives you a glimpse at the traditional experience: the grandeur of the London Coliseum, the huge orchestra pit, and Frederick Loewe’s timeless score soaring around the venue. The revival has a splendour that pulls the audience backwards through time, and yet there’s enough modern understanding in this production – and enough grim allusions to what hasn’t changed all that much since Edwardian England – to keeps Lerner & Loewe’s 1950s musical accessible to a present-day audience.  

Amara Okereke’s Eliza is fierce, at times furious, and driven to advocate for herself whenever she feels she is being disregarded. Her voice is show-stopping, especially when she trills her way up to those final notes of ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’. It’s not difficult to root for her, and Okereke’s comedy chops have the audience in the palm of her hand by the time she first manages to correctly declare: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plane.” Also irresistible is Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Higgins, whose witticisms about men may be low-hanging fruit, but who reaches for them with such entertaining pleasure that the audience applauds her regardless.

In contrast, Harry Haddon Paton is amusing as Henry Higgins, but not likeable. In fact, Sher makes no effort to redeem him whatsoever, including a change to the final scene sure to divide fans. There’s enough to dislike about him and his classist, misogynistic treatment of Eliza that we wonder how we would refer to a similar man in our own society. Sher is keen to make Higgins familiar to us, and to remind us that men today – especially those in Higgins’ position of privilege – are still capable of using and becoming reliant on women whilst simultaneously belittling and dismissing them.

The subtext is heavy, but the production itself is as light and lavish as anyone could wish. Sher stages spectacle after spectacle, from the sea of impeccably dressed ladies and gentlemen at Ascot to the riotous revelry of Alfred P Doolittle (played with charm and buoyancy by Stephen K Amos) the night before his wedding (‘I’m Getting Married In The Morning’). The revolving Higgins residence is an impressive set-piece that adds a cinematic element as Eliza rages through the house in ‘Just You Wait’ and spends weeks studying throughout ‘Servant’s Chorus’.

The show is also joyfully over the top in its Britishness, from the pompous posh-boy manner of Higgins to rambling old gentleman Colonel Pickering (Malcom Sinclair). And unsurprisingly, the very British audience eats it up – and laughs heartily at the one joke about Americans.

My Fair Lady is playing at the London Coliseum until 27 August. Get tickets here.