Footlights, Exeter’s musical theatre society, are well-known for their high-budget, high-ambition productions. Shows like The Producers, Singin’ in the Rain and Gypsy, were tantalising visual spectacles, true to the Broadway musical genre. So it was intriguing to see their production of My Fair Lady which, unlike their other recent plays, was performed at the smaller Lemon Grove. This allowed the cast and production team to place greater emphasis on character development and emotional depth because it made the relationship between the characters and the audience more intimate, crucial for the narrative’s resonance.
My Fair Lady is a classic tale, yet its themes are more relevant than ever. It is a story foremost about class, and the crude British construction of it. Eliza Doolittle (Grace Proctor) is promised a life beyond her immediate struggle as a girl who sells flowers on the street, if she entrusts the initially enigmatic phonetician, Henry Higgins (Corin Vafidis), to teach her how to speak ‘properly’. But it is also a tale of women’s liberation: not only from the overt misogyny of Higgins, but from society’s patronising expectations as to what constitutes ladylike behaviour. In a world paralysed by class and gender divisions, it was refreshing to see Footlights perform such a meaningful story.
As far as sheer thespian talent is concerned, My Fair Lady was as good as it gets. The cast were extraordinary in creating an utterly captivating setting of early 20th century London. I loved the minimalist set, which allowed for quick transitions, and as much space on a smaller stage to be used as possible. The singing and dancing were superb – helped by a fantastic orchestra – as you’d expect from a Footlights show. Everything from the costumes to the lighting had the hallmark of a high-quality production.
However, I was particularly impressed by how brilliantly compelling the relationship between Eliza and Higgins was portrayed. At first, the couple resemble a student being taught by a particularly pushy and demanding teacher. Hours are spent trying to extinguish Eliza’s cockney accent in favour of an upper-class Received Pronunciation. But from the moment her transformation is made, as shown in the wonderful song “The Rain in Spain”, Eliza and Higgins become more than just student and teacher. Higgins’ ego gets the better of him. He views her as almost his property, outraged when she decides to leave him. Vafidis expressed Higgins’ vanity flawlessly, fully conveying the erratic rage and control-freakery of an evil genius. Equally accomplished was Proctor’s Eliza, who displayed the emotional nuances and contradictions of the role with effortless distinction. The result was a gripping and enticing plot which never ceased to be entertaining and intriguing.
One of the other standout performances of the evening was Daniel Stanger Cornwell’s Alfred Doolittle. The father of Eliza, Alfred is concerned that Higgins is exploiting her. But as a working-class man under pressure to marry, he is willing to allow her to stay, in exchange for £5. Cornwell’s role superbly displayed the pressures of life in poverty: the desire to be morally respectable on the one hand, and the need to make a living on the other. The hilarious presentation of that dichotomy, combined with the best song of the evening, “Get Me to the Church on Time,” made for an inspired act.
Perhaps the most nuanced character in My Fair Lady was Hillary Pickering (Emily Lafoy.) A fellow phonetician of Higgins, Pickering shares his love of speech and well-to-do sensibilities, indulging in the idle gossip of Higgins’ mother (Ashlyn Coyne.) But unlike him, she has a greater sense of fairness. She is concerned he is pushing Eliza too hard. When Higgins’ possessiveness, insolence and blatant sexism becomes apparent, she challenges him. One of the most touching moments of the play was when she gave Eliza a ‘Votes for Women’ banner at the end. Her commitment to social justice amidst a world of indifference and snobbery made her one of the most admirable characters; Lafoy playfully displayed the many aspects of Pickering with incredible ease.
Overall, I was apprehensive coming to see My Fair Lady, simply because of how different it was from Footlights’ prior offerings. Yet, this show was of the highest order. All the traditional elements of a musical: the songs, the choreography, the bombastic, lively characters, were gloriously executed. But what made My Fair Lady truly special was how strongly you felt for the characters – how much they made you feel joyous, angry, frustrated. To command such a deep response from the audience required a uniquely apt cast and production team. I can only say how proud I am of everyone who made it come alive. I wish Footlights all the luck in the world in their future endeavours.
– Owen Bell
Image courtesy of University of Exeter Footlights Society.