Review: Let It Be, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

My brilliant dad brought me up on a sound diet of Beatles, Beatles, Monkeys and more Beatles. I know and love their happy vibe and ability to get a room full of people singing along right from the opening chords. My parents also set me up to adore musical theatre, which has become a life-long passion. For me, musical theatre at its best conjures a spectacle of storytelling wizardry, full of song and (often) dance, that sends your emotions spiralling and leaves you wishing you were up onstage revelling in the fun. When it comes to honouring the musical theatre label, I am in the Michael Billington camp, wanting more from a night at the theatre than the performance of ‘Let It Be – the Beatles Musical‘ had to offer. However, putting the ‘musical theatre’ label aside and accepting the concert for what it is – a journey ‘back to the magical sixties’ and forwards through the decades – made this ‘museum’ experience a foot-tapping and fun family night out for Dad’s birthday treat: and there was a really great sense of the feel-good factor in hearing and seeing favourite songs performed live.

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Act 1 builds gradually through a series of sets addressing the different eras in the rise of Beatlemania. The humble beginnings are shown under the simply lit black box stage of the 1963 Royal Variety performance, where ‘the loveable mopheads’ had graduated from the Cavern. Here the tribute band presented popular but understated classics including ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘She Loves You’ (link to original footage of the Beatles Live in 1964). After a brief interlude where the set is changed and we are treated to era-marking advertising and historical references on the four (large) box televisions surrounding the pros arch, we are reintroduced to the band in their notorious beige tunic uniforms at the Shea Stadium in the USA. Help! is accompanied by footage of fans screaming, crying and fainting to show the growing wave of hysteria in the Beatles fandom. It became distracting to see these short clips looped so often throughout the song (the multimedia side of the production was much better developed by Act 2) as the 1960s crowd reaction served only to highlight the contrast to the quiet and polite behaviour of the Cheltenham audience. We were beginning to wonder whether we were allowed to clap along. Nevertheless, at the opening strains of ‘Twist and Shout‘, excitement rose and we were called to our feet to dance our hearts out and the Everyman audience responded willingly.

Another interlude made way for bigger and better things and the band returned en spectacle. The redressing of the stage and cast saw dry ice with vibrant and colourful lighting arriving alongside the first appearance of the cast’s nouveau moustaches and Lennon’s iconic glasses.  The trademark kitsch Sergeant Pepper uniforms and flower filled set (complete with palm tree) were illuminated in front of psychedelic projections revealing the incoming 70s and reflecting the band’s monetary success and growing flamboyance.

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Although dialogue is minimal, compering is provided, as it would have been, by the ever-polite Paul McCartney, played by Emanuele Angeletti, and the charismatic Michael Gagliano as John Lennon. Both performers nail the accents for their speaking and singing appearances and have clearly devoted many years to studying the idiosyncrasies of their individual characters’ speech patterns and mannerisms. Angeletti (who began working in Beatles’ tribute bands in Italy in 2000) has honed the look and pout of Paul McCartney. He sports the high cheekbones and drooping eyelids, playing coy and bashful to the nth degree. He is spot on with the accent and makes full use of the sideways head bob, all while playing the guitar left handed. Gagliano exudes the Lennon ‘It factor’ and charismatic persona that lights up the stage between songs when he is seen to be goofing around and chiming in with infamous phrases – ‘if you’re in the cheap seats, stamp your feet; everybody else, rattle your jewellery‘- to much delight.

In the second act we are asked to ‘Imagine the reunion that never was‘ and scoot forwards to John Lennon’s birthday in 1980. The lighting turns on the audience. Technology is rocketing forward and the crowd are as much a part of the act as the band. ‘Penny Lane‘ was a crowd favourite accompanied by colourful graphics that were as bonkers and random as the original music videos and lyrics. The only thing missing was the horse montage… even the yellow submarine was there in technicolor.

The band are now very much a distinguishable collection of individuals. Paul McCartney’s smooth locks, sparkling shoulders and shiny black sweatpants are only outshone by Angeletti’s polished two-tone shoes; Gagliano’s Lennon looks younger in double denim and shades to replace his specs; John Brosnan’s, George Harrison – ‘the quiet one’ – side-steps his way to the foreground having cleaned up his hairy act with a white suit; and Ben Cullingworth evolves from being the cute one into superstar drummer as Ringo Starr nods to evolving fashion trends by accessorising his new look with a fashion-over-function scarf and slicked back hair. It is great to see Brosnan and Cullingworth come into their own in this act. We get to hear each owning the lead vocals and the evolving musical styles of songs penned by each of the Beatles’ guitarists: including Angeletti’s solo rendition of Lennon-McCartney’s ‘Blackbird‘, George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun and My Sweet Lord, and Lennon’s seminal ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘, which also showcased Gagliano’s talents on the pianoBrosnan’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (originally performed with Eric Clapton) was a touching and impressive tribute whereashearts raced along with the Bond theme Live and Let Die’, written by Paul and Linda McCartney and originally performed by Wings.

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Thankfully the songs had not been forced into a trite storyline for this showcase of the past masters; the unequivocal tribute concert celebrates the evolution of the style and music of one of Britain’s most popular bands – and to that we can twist, shout and throw our hands up in favour. Ultimately, the company provide a great evening out for any Beatles fans wanting to ‘come together’ with a like-minded crowd to enjoy 40 of their favourite tracks played live by performers with a real knack for looking, sounding and behaving like the real thing.

The Let It Be tour continues to Liverpool, Nottingham, Hull, Edinburgh, Dartford and Manchester over the coming weeks.

 

 

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Review: Shrek, on tour, Bristol Hippodrome

William Steig’s picture-book cartoon character, Shrek!, shot to fame in the 2001 DreamWorks animated film and reserved his iconic place in family-favourite history. Boasting a larger than life cast of characters, including a zealous talking donkey and subversive princess, the colourful story was a super selection for musical conversion in 2008.

Click photo to see the Shrek trailer

Ten years on, the musical is touring the UK. It was a shame to see such a sparse audience at the Bristol Hippodrome. No doubt it’s a demoralising challenge when the energy of a production is zapped by an empty auditorium in such a large space. And yet there are several huge performances deserving praise.

Steffan Harri greens-up to play the lovable stink with wry humour and a bouncy step. He is well-matched by his furry friend, Donkey, played by Marcus Ayton, who oozes with cheek and sass. It’s great to hear many of the classic lines from the film, which is rife with layers – like onions, like ogres, in fact – but, at times, the writing seems to hold these characters back and there are some poorly managed, purposeless entrances and exits that left the performances a little ropey around the edges. Part of this is to do with the simplistic set design, pared down for the tour. Although effective and usable, it doesn’t wow like other big musicals on tour and some of the stripped-back stand-in features mean that the fairytale magic is lost.

The pantomime villain is always a gift of a role and Samuel Holmes stands up (ahem!) to the demands of Lord Farquaad’s ‘small’ part. His appearances keep the audience tittering at his comical lines and brilliantly funny attempts to cross the stage at speed on his tiny legs -a gimmick that never seems to get old.

Unfortunately, reality TV star, Amelia Lily is the one who falls short as Princess Fiona. Her vocal talents are well showcased but not matched in her dancing or acting ability, clarity and precision being the main concerns. She is overtaken by some excellent work from the saving-grace Ensemble though and it’s this super bunch whose appearances make the show.

This is a fantastic show for the Ensemble who each assume their own supporting role in the brigade of misfit fairytale creatures, cast by physically and psychologically dwarfed Lord Farquaad into the squalor of Shrek’s swamp, due to their oddities. Tim Haley impresses here with super costumes for all the proudly freaky fairytale creatures, each charmingly unique and full of style. The Ensemble do a credible job with their many costume (and shoe and hair and make-up) changes to also play villagers, guards, tapping rats, blind mice and the cutesy chorus line of Dulocians. (There are some super time-lapse videos of these quick changes on the twitter feed). Their appearances are punctuated with Josh Prince’s choreographic arrangements, under Hugh Vanstone’s fun, colourful and engaging lighting design, bringing the ‘Big, Bright, Beautiful World’ to life.

Among them, Lucinda Shaw’s vocals – behind Tim Haley’s four-man dragon puppet – are on fire. And tiny Jemma Revell also packs an awesome punch flipping between the dainty Sugar Plum Fairy and the hearty belt of the adorably silly Gingerbread man. Jennifer Tierney, as Mama Bear, is another vocalist to note, while her fun-loving on stage husband, Kevin Yates, entertains with some groovy dad-dance moves.

The music has some real highlights with winning references to a host of other shows to satisfy musical geeks in the audience: the Les-Mis inspired ‘Freak Flag’ was a great ensemble number, as were the Duloc parodies of 42nd Street and A Chorus Line. ‘I Think I Got You Beat’ appealed to the masses for its primitive, coarse humour contrasting to the classic musical sing-off duets such as Annie Get Your Gun’sAnything You Can Do, (I Can Do Better)‘, a slightly less gaseous take on competitive flirting. It was a shame to see the wonderful trio version of ‘I Know It’s Today’ omitted in favour of interaction with tacky puppets. This was a great number in the original and exemplifies several cuts that haven’t seemed to benefit the revamped tour. But we left the theatre on a high after the keenly-awaited karaoke-swamp party finale, which drew the better half of the performance to a neat close.

This was a mixed bag of a musical, showcasing a number of hardworking and talented performers, but not quite living up to the original west end production.

Media sourced from https://shrekthemusical.co.uk

Review: Hamilton, an ovation for understudies

It is not a lightly given remark when I describe the production I saw tonight as ‘epic’. The vast scale of what the script deals with alone is magnanimous. And the presentation smacks of daring and absolute reverence in an oh-so-appropriately irreverent way.

‘Hamilton’ emancipates the personal and political, a private and a public tale at risk of slipping out of the American consciousness. It is a historical acknowledgement of a founding father of America whose narrative was thrust into the history books (or so artistic licence will have us accept) by the incredible woman who succeeded him by an impressive 50 Years, in which she worked to honour both his legacy and her own. While the power of the political battles at play were the heart of Act 1 (in my opinion), the emotional battles of Act 2 overwhelmed me with affection, dread and sheer admiration for the characters on stage. There is not just one eponymous Hamilton of note that you learn about in this now infamous history lesson – and what a masterclass it is.

Layers upon layers of symbolism are packed in behind the fast-paced lyrics of this high-speed rollercoaster. We are whisked through an encyclopaedia of musical styles from hip-hop and rap to r’n’b and blues; we are chasing the choreographic details trying to decide where and what to look at with so much on offer; and we are challenged by the controversial and deliberate clash of style and substance. Paul Tazewell’s sumptuous costumes track the subtle changes in fashion through the ages: the switch from corsetry to empire lines and from boots to hose and shoes. Authenticity sits side-by-side with contemporary-modern hairstyling and accessories, highlighting that this is a transcendental story about innovation; about a revolutionary with a complete disregard for convention and a need for forward thinking. This thinking is echoed again in David Korins’ monumental set design which harbours the simplicity of a new age, a church-like provenance, and reminds us of the pioneers’ ships that arrived in America, paving the way for the actions of the founding fathers of the nation. Both the set and ensemble costumes (corsets and jodhpurs) are paired-down, stripped-back to uncover details of the story that former Vice-president, Aaron Burr, pains to admit.

The programme reminds us that many Americans know only snippets from his history, though many will recognise Alexander Hamilton from their ten dollar bills. Brits will likely know even less about the historical events he lived through. The inexhaustible Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer) ensures we go away with more than a full picture of what happened – both on a national and, to some extent, international scale – and the role Alexander Hamilton played in these events. Naturally, the soft side of the personal story is included to enchant us. And yet Hamilton’s private life is anything but; it swings to the fore dealing and receiving blows that impact on the political situation and challenge the family bond.

Tonight’s performance was a true reflection of the power of family, which the slick cast have clearly cultivated among their ranks. We saw a number of outstanding understudies stepping into roles with panache and the instant standing ovation (an overused stasis I usually avoid) was absolutely deserved.

Regular cast member, Rachelle Ann Go played the accepting Eliza Hamilton who unveils tremendous inner-strength. This pint-sized performer held proof that great things come in small packages as she delivered the female-empowering punchline of the show with heart and soul to ensure that lump comes to your throat. Michael Jibson’s mad King George couldn’t disappoint. His entrances were met with glee from the audience who hung on his every pun. These regulars were joined by understudies Ash Hunter (Hamilton), Miriam-Teak Lee (Angelica), Gabriel Mokake (Washington), and Sifiso Mazibuko (Burr).

Mazibuko charmed with his smooth smile, constantly challenging our loyalties despite revealing in the opening sequence that Burr was ‘the damn fool that shot him’. Mokake‘s Washington had soul that packed a punch, even as he aged before our eyes with touching grace. An awesome performance to witness.

Miriam-Teak Lee towers, masterfully, over her co-stars with all the strength and superiority of her referenced female counterpart, Lady Macbeth. And well she may. As Angelica she tells Hamilton to ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place’ giving him the confidence and determination not to fail, in an awful moment where he is escalated on his pedestal before a calamitous, Aristotelian fall. Lee’s voice is as outstanding as her presence and she epitomises the role-model that Angelica became to both of the Hamiltons. Her rendition of ‘Satisfied’, within the beautifully choreographed (Andy Blankenbuehler) rewind sequence, is both haunting and a mesmerising highlight in the first Act.

And unequivocally excellent, Ash Hunter (the alternate Hamilton) took the lead with every ounce of his being. His Americanised Jean Valjean-esque transition from entertaining, quick-witted youth to broken father is heart-wrenching. As a new-parent watching, his irreparable despair and stillness in ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ stole the show for me. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Yet to have seen the writer himself in his place is a thrill too much to even contemplate. That standing ovation – hugely warranted by tonight’s cast – was, for me, first and foremost for the exceptional talent of Lin-Manuel Miranda for creating such an incredible 2 hours and 45 minutes of quick fire, mind-blowing, intertextual mastery. Shakespeare, Jason Robert Brown, Boubil-Schonberg… the list of honours is endless and Miranda certainly earns his place on the pedestal with the geniuses he applauds.

Look for the Silver Lining

Neither of my parents are performers so I’m often asked where my love of theatre comes from. The answer is very clear to me. When I was a child, every now and then, my lovely grandma used to send over video cassettes of the musical films that she had recorded off the television for me to watch. They were carefully selected and she would set a timer to remind her to press record after she had scoured the Sunday supplement TV guide for films for me to see. They were always musicals from the MGM golden age of film and ones that she and Grandad had loved watching when they were growing up themselves. I adored them. The musicals and my grandparents. While my peers were educated into the music of 90’s boy bands and girls’ magazines, I was transfixed by these recordings and watched them over and over, learning the songs and dance routines. I grew up alongside June Haver and Shirley Jones, adoring Ray Bolger and Gordon McRae and idolising Gene Kelly and Julie Andrews.

My favourite of these films was the 1949 musical biography of theatre star, Marilyn Miller, entitled ‘Look For the Silver Lining’. It tracks the career of Miller who grew up in a vaudeville family, aspiring to join them on the stage, and makes herself a star despite the numerous trials and tribulations on the way. She discovers the pain of young love and eventually outgrows a persistent, childish naivety by learning from those she has met along her journey.

The real Marilyn Miller (photo from Wikipedia)

Miller is played by the beautiful June Haver who, at the age of 23, played Miller across three decades of her life. While Haver’s ability to be accepted as a convincing child is questionable and Miller’s precociousness somewhat irritating, she is endearing nonetheless and it is lovely to see the interaction between Haver and Charles Ruggles as ‘Pops Miller’ as she grows from child to adult, shedding much of the immaturity but retaining just enough to give her the drive and ambition that the industry demands of her.

June Haver and Ray Bolger (photo from IMDb)

At the start of the film, the youngest Miller arrives on the Vaudeville circuit, from Ohio, to catch up with her performing family because ‘Grandmother has decided she is ready to perform’. Backstage at the theatre, she meets her dancing idol, Jack Donahue, played with charming wit by Ray Bolger, who is every bit the gentleman and not at all prone to scaring off any crows, as he was a decade before… When Donahue gives her the chance to perform on stage, she falls head over heels in love and the career that Pops forbids her is undeniable.

Gordon MacRae and June Haver (photo from IMDb)

As a precocious teenager, Miller meets her match in Gordon MacRae’s Frank Carter, who becomes the third male influence in her life and attempts to render her the Shrew to his Petruchio until he is called away from theatre to support the war effort.

Miller’s life is challenged by tragedies, not least her early retirement from performing and, also in real life, her own untimely death at the young age of 37.

The film documents highlights in Miller’s theatre career, including her appearances in the Ziegfeld Follies, as the titular Sunny, singing the classic song ‘Who?’ by Kern and Hammerstein and as Jerome Kern’s Sally, in which she sings ‘Look For the Silver Lining’, also immortalised in 1946 when Judy Garland played Miller in Kern’s Till the Clouds Roll By.

Click for link to the original film trailer on YouTube

As a child, I loved Haver’s youth, beauty and vivacious energy for the stage. I adored her cheeky tap numbers with Ray Bolger and their festive ditty at the backstage Christmas party. I pined after her beautiful costumes and grew up dreaming of a wedding dress that would move with the same lightness and grace in my wedding dance (which I got and it did!). I loved the symbolism of the good luck elephants, which prompted my own collection. And, more than anything, I loved glimpsing behind the scenes in the theatre world: the dressing rooms, the larger than life costumes, the hammy actors spouting Shakespeare, the demure dressing gowns that the actors wore while applying their greasepaint, the busy and enthusiastic rehearsals, the big smiles and huge hearts. These movies were full of the good old feel-good factor and made me want to be a part of that wholesome, singing and dancing world. I’ve since learned to see the world without my rose-tinted movie glasses but I still love the film, the vaudeville world that it depicts and, above all, I hope I can pass on recordings of precious old films to my own grandchildren one day.

Thank you to Silver Screenings for inspiring this blog post. Do head over to her wonderful blog for links to plenty more films from the golden age.

Review: Miss Littlewood, RSC, Stratford

How apt that the culmination of the first day of the RSC’s Big Director’s weekend should end with a preview of Sam Kenyon and Erica Whyman’s Miss Littlewood. And what a treat it was.

Performed on the beautifully intimate thrust at the RSC’s The Other Place in Stratford Upon Avon, where a mock platform slides back and forth from behind the pros arch to become the meta-stage for Littlewood’s story. The evening tiptoes down the path behind theatrical pioneer, Joan Littlewood, dabbling in the highlights of her working and personal life and drawing on autobiographical material, with a suitable touch of bias that is not permitted to go unnoticed.

The set is not lavish but deceptive in its seeming simplicity and put to good use through the incredible number of transitions that Whyman has wrestled into refinement. Whyman’s direction is thorough and impressive. The cast are kept busy and are endlessly resourceful. Actor-musicianship and multi-rolling are showcased with a superb sense of tongue-in-cheek, not least by the talented supporting cast including Amanda Hadingue, who takes on a number of male and female cameos, while adding musical accompaniment on her violin. There is more than a touch of Brechtian influence and an honest reflection of the theatrical economy that Littlewood employed in branding the revolutionary Theatre Workshop style. Having said this, the attention to authenticity in the time-appropriate costumes was a real credit to the Wardrobe department and I can’t begin to imagine how many shoes were used in this production, not least by the delightful Emily Johnstone in her ever-changing roles.

An honest reflection of the theatrical economy that Littlewood employed in branding the revolutionary Theatre Workshop style.

Littlewood is played by seven actresses in total. Each superb in their own right and supported by a small but well-versed ensemble company. True to Kenyon’s script note, the seven Joans ‘should be diverse in a number of ways – age, ethnicity, appearance, accent -and no one should be concerned about doing an impersonation’. Each assumes the role through the gestic application of a hat (‘a costume. Or a weapon.’) and delivers their character as directed by the real Joan (played by Claire Burt with tenacity, scrutiny and a naughty twinkle in her eye) who presents her life as she wants to see it, even attempting to avoid the moments she wants to forget. Each Joan represented a different era and was charmingly replaced with the same careless attitude that the real Miss Littlewood adopted in recasting her plays at the last moment. Their harmonious co-existence was a lesson in depth of character as each actress presented so much more than just one of the multi-facets of Joan and served to remind us that Joan Littlewood was a representative of the people, an anybody, with a desire for theatre to be seen by and represent every man and woman.

Kenyon, no doubt, had a battle selecting what to keep and lose from Littlewood’s dense biography. While some audience members felt aspects were missing, the teacher in me was delighted to see this inspirational figure immortalised in a production that reflected her own working style. A beautiful homage and a great resource to future generations of theatre makers.

A beautiful homage and a great resource to future generations of theatre makers.

Although dubbed ‘a new musical’, I fear that musical theatre fans would be disappointed. The songs are poignant but not moving and some of the individual singing voices are full of character but not finesse. This is not a criticism – style over substance fits the bill here and, like the era-influenced dance routines, the audience can enjoy the lightness of touch rather than an over-choreographed showcase. Littlewood was a fabled communist after all: ‘Profligacy is in bad taste’, offers Joan 2, flirting with language.

My heart sang with gratitude as I smiled my way through so much of this utterly fun production. A lesson about a director and, indeed, a meta-lesson in directing itself. Whether it will extend to enchant beyond those in the industry is the question. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but as Joan says to her first appointed actress ‘don’t like what you see? Do something better.’

Miss Littlewood runs until 4th August 2018 at The Other Place, RSC, Stratford.

Best Seat in the House

July is shaping up to be an exciting month for theatre-going, according to my calendar. I can’t wait to share a number of reviews with you for a host of different types of theatre experiences.

This weekend, I’m off to the RSC, Stratford, to catch a preview of Miss Littlewood; next week I will be sampling some new writing from a fledgling theatre company who are presenting Sardines at the Drayton Arms; this will be followed by an immersive production of The Great Gatsby at a ‘secret location’ in SE1; and then I will be jumping onto the Hamilton bandwagon to find out what all the hype is about.

I’m not particularly fussy when it comes to picking seats at the theatre. If there’s one left and it’s behind a pillar, I will own it just for the chance to attend a piece of theatre that I want to see. Having said that, cost does factor into the occasion. I do like to see fair prices for seating. Given the choice, if I am going to see a musical or ensemble piece, my preference would always be to sit on the first tier, variably referred to as the Dress, Royal or Grand Circle, depending on the theatre. As a trained dancer, I love to be able to look down and enjoy the shapes and patterns of the choreography. Use of space ranks highly in my own directing and choreographing so I like to enjoy it when I’m watching other shows too.

I have friends who like to sit in the stalls and, in particular, in the front row of the stalls where they feel part of the action. They love the close proximity to the actors, being able to see them sweat and to make eye contact with them and show them their responses. Indeed they’ve enjoyed the occasional tweet from a performer who has appreciated their camaraderie during a rousing Master of the House. These are friends who are willing to be targeted by comedians or picked to step up on stage and take part in the likes of One Man, Two Guvnors. In their recent trip to see War Horse, they felt like they could reach out to touch Joey and the story was being told just for them. A truly magical experience.

Another friend is a sound technician. He also loves the stalls but prefers to be further back, taking in the sight and appreciating the sound from where he knows it resonates best in particular theatres.

Do you have specific seats or areas of the theatre that you like to sit in? Would you still book if your seats were not available?

Some people turn to the knowledge hubs such as Seat Plan or Theatre Monkey for reviews before making their selection of the best seat available. I’d love to hear your own experiences and why you like to sit where you do. Perhaps you have a preference for certain types of theatre. Let’s get chatting in the comments below!

Doing what I love: a personal how and why of Directing

Where do you even start? It’s a question I’ve often been asked by audience members who enjoy their own role in the theatre set-up but find it hard to work out quite how and what the director does to create what the audience sees on stage.

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I recently enjoyed the honour of directing Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady for The Cotswold Savoyards, working alongside the terrifically enthusiastic cast at The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. I had grown up loving the film and had seen the show on stage as a child. As a teenager I devoured George Bernard Shaw’s original play, Pygmalion, which inspired me to learn about phonetics and language and then, a decade later, to dissect and analyse the play with my Year 8 English students. By the time I came to direct the musical, in my 30s, I knew my favourite lines, the overarching themes and metaphors, the character objectives and motivation – and yet I was still hungry to delve further through physicalising the world that the characters inhabit.

Read, read, ponder and read

My starting point is always to read aloud and hear the voices of the characters so that I can start to understand what they want and how they interact. Before casting, I like to have drawn up character sketches and an overall vision statement for my aims in producing any show. I have seen numerous shows where directors or companies have penny of ambition but where ideas jar because they lack a core understanding of what is going on in the hearts and minds of the characters and, importantly, the playwright, pinning it all together.

In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle undertakes a series of lessons to improve her prospects of becoming a lady in a flower shop ‘instead of selling flowers on the corner of Tottenham Court Road but they won’t take [her] unless [she talks] more genteel’. Eliza’s lessons bring about a change that Shaw saw as a metaphor for the time: the world poised for great changes instigated by the two world wars which served to break down the class divide and lay the foundations for a future with improved gender equality.  My Fair Lady really is a musical underpinned with substance!

I was so excited to work, not only with a very able and committed pool of actors in the leading roles, but with worthwhile material that we could get something from. Don’t misunderstand me, My Fair Lady has its imperfections but, in musical theatre, you don’t often find the depth of character or well-shaped dialogue that it boasts either.  In rehearsals, we really could unpick the meaning behind the dialogue, the songs and the relationships to highlight that Eliza Doolittle is so much more than a rags to riches Cinderella. She has the ambition of a suffragette and only lacks in society’s definition of intelligence because she is a product of her experiences. In her, we see both rebellion and submission but also a flame that keeps burning quietly and refuses to let her be overlooked. Just as Pygmalion violated his ‘ivory maid’ with his sculptor’s hands, Higgins’ abominable behaviour towards Eliza is a violation that is equally undermining. We side with Eliza out of sympathy and investigate whether we can eventually warm to Higgins as he (along with Pickering) goes from being ‘a pretty pair of babies playing with [their] live doll’ to an ‘ordinary man’ who is very much ‘accustomed to her face’?

Visions of visions

Watching theatre, I love to see beautifully constructed, impactful stage pictures oozing with stories and brimming with life. I knew that this was what I wanted to create and that the iconically stylish My Fair Lady would be a dream platform for such a goal. The importance of status in the Edwardian era was a gift in terms of showcasing the use of stage positioning to deliver a message and I was itching to draw out the obvious contrasts and underlying similarities between the Cockney gatherings and the elegant arrival at Ascot and the Embassy Ball.

At the opening of the show, the classes are brought together as the rich and wealthy depart the Royal Opera House, while the working class prep1043064are fruit, vegetables and flowers ready for the morning hustle and bustle of the Covent Garden market place. For me, this epitomised the premise on which I wanted to base the show – two worlds colliding – and  an image from a Renior painting stuck in my mind. So, it was at this point that any directing proper began and I sat down with my sketchpad and cast list and listened to the overture on repeat while I created my own ‘stickman Renior’ that would later become a still, revealed behind the theatre gauze, allowing the audience time to cast their eyes over the pregnant image ready to burst into action.

My sketchpad is my production Bible, brainstorm sink and reference point for every musical number and scene. One of the first actions I plotted was the surge of ‘posh folk’ moving forwards from their waiting place under the arches. Their black umbrellas and dark attire make render them sombre, somewhat intimidating and untouchable to the working class crowd that we grow attached to in the first scene.

It was important to me that every individual had a character and story and there was never a moment when any one person wasn’t doing something. One audience member noted that ‘whenever any member of the Ensemble moved anywhere they had their own journey, their own purpose’. Of course, they did. This was imperative to me. As selfish as I know I can be in life, the world doesn’t actually revolve around me so I was determined that it wouldn’t revolve around Eliza or any other character for that matter. Everyone had to have their own story, even if it wasn’t the one we were bringing into focus. I knew from the outset that Eliza’s first appearance, and Higgins’, should be subtle and unobtrusive. They, like everyone else on the stage, were one of the crowd. Thus, blocking ideas were recorded in my sketchpad with colour-coding, little arrows and meticulous notes against the music to remind me who would move where in the jostling crowd sequence right up until the overture intervenes with its own conclusive response to the ‘two worlds colliding’ when young toff, Freddy, knocks over flower girl, Eliza, prompting the series of events that will alter the course of her life forever.

Impact and outcome

Before watching the performance one night, an audience member asked me what I set out to achieve when I’m directing. ‘Do you like to be different? Do you like to create things that will make people say “that’s clever”?’ My answer is, as ever, multi-faceted. I like sincerity. I like to find depth in the characters so that the actors believe in them, truly discover them and build relationships with others based on what they understand about their own characters. I also like visual storytelling. I am obsessed with stage pictures and the idea that at any moment you could press pause and find stories in every pose, every gesture, every look. And I love symbolism. I love to know that the over-arching theme of two-world’s colliding is present and recurring throughout the play: it starts when Freddy crashes into Eliza; we see it again in Mrs Higgins’ eyes when Pickering reveals that Henry has plucked a flower girl off the curb; and it’s there every time Higgins tries to ‘ram’ his knowledge down Eliza’s ‘ungrateful throat’. I love the parallels that this theme reveals and how this can be echoed in the staging and choreography: Higgins stands lost outside his house in Wimpole Street, hands in his pockets, dreaming of Eliza, exactly where Freddy, who he has mocked, once did; the rich and noble spend their time and money at the Ascot races, where the ladies are paraded around by their partners, showing off their hats, whereas the working class while away the hours in the local pub, where the men show off the ladies and the ladies show off their bloomers in a right ol’ cockney knees up. In the Rain in Spain, a moment of dancing with Higgins is electrifying for Eliza, who has become so far removed from the whirling polkas and can-can of her cockney days. She is believed to be a Princess at the Embassy Ball and no longer fits in with the cockney rabble at her father’s impromptu stag do. 

‘Where is the line?’ asked the audience man. ‘Do you expect the audience to pick all of this out themselves? And if not, at what point is the symbolism just self-indulgent?’ I don’t know the answer. I guess it is self indulgent from the start and no, I don’t expect the audience to sit and analyse and notice. It’s nice when they do but it’s more about the production being a sum of its parts. Drawing out the parallels is an exercise in text analysis, it deepens our understanding, engages the  actors (sometimes) and helps to give greater purpose to the story we are telling. Fundamentally, it highlights the relationships, not just between individuals but between classes, social circles and so on. It highlights the truth, the relevance these happenings have to our own lives and the people we meet. What I’ve loved about our cast in My Fair Lady is their hunger to hear, learn, discover, draw on and invest in these ideas in the creation of a show that another audience member described as ‘empathy demanding… We feel so connected to the characters’.  And that’s what mattered.

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Photograph courtesy of @trevtography