Joanna Riding as Eliza Doolittle
Joanna Riding as Eliza Doolittle
As faithful readers might recall, I made the decision to see only the first act of a 2:30pm Saturday matinee of My Fair Lady at the Drury Lane in London, so that I could catch a 4:45pm matinee of Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife at the Lyric. Indeed, the revival of Maugham's 1926 play turned out to be spectacular, with Jenny Seagrove giving the performance of the season as a betrayed wife who doesn't much mind the betrayal because she knows the romance went out of her marriage ages ago. But Trevor Nunn's innovative direction of the Lerner-Loewe masterpiece had me wishing that I could have stayed at the Drury Lane, too.

Nunn shows this won't be business as usual in the opening scene. He doesn't just have Eliza's two bunches of violets trod in the mud, but has the poor flower-seller herself take a full, unadulterated, ungracious ka-THUNK of a pratfall into the wet ground. This sets the tone for a production that is not going to be well-mannered; there'll be more realism than happy-go-lucky musical comedy here.

The differences in Nunn's staging and interpretive decisions from other productions of Fair Lady are often subtle, but they do show that a marvelous theatrical mind has been at work. Nunn seems to have considered every word in the text and just how each one got there. Fans of the show will recall that when Pickering and Higgins inadvertently meet in Covent Garden, Pickering says, "I came from India to meet you!" and Higgins answers with, "I was going to India to meet you!" But Nunn avoids making this sound like a too-convenient coincidence by having Higgins deliver the line in such a way that it sounds as if he was planning to go there sometime in the future.

We've all seen Eliza enter Higgins's study with a bedraggled ostrich plume sticking out of her hat. Nunn shows us where she got it: In a crossover before the scene, where he has Eliza pass by a garbage can, see the plume sticking out if it, pluck it out, and put it on her hat, displaying a big smile at her good fortune. A small piece of business, to be sure, but one that shows us Nunn thinks outside each scene and considers what happens before and after it.

Interesting, too, that this Eliza doesn't have as many Cockneyisms in her speech patterns. Nunn has indeed taught her "take" instead of "tyke" and has her sing about going "straight," not "strite," to the thee-ay-tuh when Higgins screams to fetch a doctor double-quick. More to the point, when Eliza is enduring her lessons with Higgins, she doesn't always get each and every pronunciation wrong, as she always has -- just most of them. This suggests that there is hope for the girl and that she just might eventually make good, which -- I assume I'm not giving anything away here! -- she certainly does.

I also like that Nunn has Eliza (now fetchingly played by Joanna Riding) sing that she'll "Go to Saynt James so often" and then pause, as if she's trying to think of something clever to say, before adding: "I will call it Saynt Jim." That got the best laugh I've ever heard the line get and, I noticed, made the audience listen more attentively. When Eliza finally gets "The Rain in Spain" right, she romps around the room as energetically as any of A.R. Gurney's Sylvias with a "Give-me-another-I'll-get-it-right" glee.

Nunn has engineered that Pickering be much more human, not just a "By Jove" hoary Englishman. (Credit to actor Malcolm Sinclair, too, of course.) After Higgins treats Eliza shabbily, Nunn makes Pickering so sincere in the way he says, "Does it occur to you the girl has some feelings?" And here's one Pickering who doesn't just sit and grin when Higgins launches into "I'm an Ordinary Man." Nunn directs the song so that Pickering takes what Higgins says as happenstance small talk, not something to which he must pay intense attention. Nor does Pickering enjoyably chortle at what he hears, as Wilfred Hyde-White did when we saw a quick shot of him during the number in the film version; here, Nunn has Pickering slightly annoyed that Higgins's orations are keeping him from reading his newspaper. But you know the Colonel: He's polite. Nevertheless, he's glad when Higgins finishes a refrain and lifts up his paper, ready to resume reading -- only to have to put it down once more when Higgins starts up again.

Yes, we do get to know Pickering in this version. After Higgins plans to take Eliza to Ascot and asks his cohort, "Where does one buy a lady's gown?" Pickering answers quickly and assuredly -- and then is woefully embarrassed that he did so. There's an amusing suggestion here that the colonel might just have a big secret in his closet. (Or maybe not. As we'll see in the Ascot scene, the dress he chooses for Eliza is a hideous black and purple -- just what a guy with no sense of women's clothes would buy.)

Nunn reconceived Dennis Waterman's Alfred P. Doolittle, too. Gone is the over-enthusiastic glad-hander, replaced by someone who, I'll admit, at first seems colorless. But it's all in the cause of a more realistic character. Even better is the way that Nunn has rethought Freddy Eynsford-Hill. We no longer must endure the usual silly fop, for he's been replaced by a normal young man. This Freddy is especially winning in "On the Street Where You Live," which Peter Prentice delivers as a plaintive and sincere love song rather than in an arch and clueless way.

Dennis Waterman as Alfred P. Doolittle
Dennis Waterman as Alfred P. Doolittle
I will say that I question Nunn's decision (with costume designer Anthony Ward, who's also the set designer) to have each and every one of the Ascot Gavotters clad in black. Did someone's favorite horse break a leg and have to be put down? Only later did I recall that, in the Alfred P. Doolittle scenes, we did see those sandwich signs on which London newspaper headlines are written, saying things like "King Gravely Ill." I guess he died -- hence, the mourning clothes. But, as my buddy Joseph Weiss wisely pointed out, this undercuts the message of the "Ascot Gavotte." Are the horserace watchers muted because upper-class Brits are unable to become excited over anything, or because their king has just died?

For me, the highlight of the production occurred in Act One, Scene Three. How well I remember the first time I saw My Fair Lady on Broadway in 1961 and enjoyed a nifty sight gag: Eliza wiped her nose on her sleeve and Higgins offered her his handkerchief, so the next time she needed to wipe her nose, she again wiped it on her sleeve -- and then wiped that sleeve with the handkerchief. When I saw the movie version, I was surprised that this bit of business was not included. Years later, it occurred to me that the 1961 Eliza, Margot Moser, might have added the bit on her own -- and in 1993, at the Oklahoma! 50th anniversary birthday party, who was seated at my table but Margot Moser? I asked her about it and she said that, indeed, it was her idea.

I still like the move, and when I wrote my book, Let's Put on a Musical, I included it as a suggestion. Later Mary Beth Lang, a Massachusetts community theater actress, told me that she landed Eliza in a local My Fair Lady partly because at auditions, they asked her to do that scene -- and when she did it with the wipe, they loved her "improv." Anyway, as you've guessed by now, Nunn has his Eliza do it in his production. It's so nice to have it back where it belongs.

There has been a tendency in recent years to end My Fair Lady's first act when Higgins, Eliza, and Pickering head out to the Embassy Ball and not as originally conceived, with the curtain coming down only after they've arrived and she's dancing with Karpathy. I had hoped that Nunn would use the original plan; that way, I'd see a little bit more of the show. But he went with the newer convention, and it was one of the few disappointments I had that afternoon.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]