Sep 22, 2016

My Fair Lady: A Play for All Ages, Keeping Up With the Times

Way back when I was still a teenager, a slightly older gallant swept me off my feet by taking me to one of the most exciting theatrical events of that era: the first ever production of My Fair Lady in Sydney. Since then, like just about everybody else on this planet at that time, I still know all the words to most of the songs of this most popular musical.

Celebrating the 60th anniversary of production

So, when the 60th anniversary production was being promoted this year as part of the Sydney Opera season’s program, I was lukewarm about the idea of seeing yet again something that I was over-familiar with, but in the end agreed to go. And what a mistake it would have been to say no! Having just seen it, I can confirm that it richly deserves every one of the four stars it’s been awarded in the reviews. It is, simply, a glorious production that is nostalgically true to the original while being a sheer delight in every way, with absolutely faultless performances by its cast.

They are, therefore, a total credit to their director, and this is where it all starts to have an extra dimension of being completely fabulous. Because its director is none other than its original star, Julie Andrews. At this point I have to confess that knowing that was an additional factor for my initial reservations, since I’d never heard of her directing anything, and – as articles were lauding it – she was doing it as an actor now 80 years old. So, was it some sort of vanity project?

Humble pie anyone?

As it turned out, I now have to eat a very large slice of humble pie for being such a doubting Thomas, because there is no doubt that this amazing woman knows her stuff, and has delivered a production that had the audience cheering at the end. But wait, there’s more. In a time where people are living longer in a culture that’s having difficulties in moving beyond a veneration of youth, quite a lot is being written about the dearth of parts for older players. Needless to say, however, a woman in her 80s could be expected to have a more enlightened approach to that.

And one of the joys of this production is to find that, apart from the excellent young leads of Anna O’Byrne as Eliza and Mark Vincent as Freddie, and the stripling of 59 – Alex Jennings – as a superb Professor Higgins, all of the other main roles are performed with gusto by a great coterie of actors with whom the older of us have grown up. All of them are now in their late 60s or 70s, and absolutely remain at the top of their game.

My personal longtime favourite is the wonderful Reg Livermore, now 77, as it’s also way back since I was a teenager that I’ve been an adoring fan of his craft and his charm from his earliest days of performing, and of honing his skills under the aegis of the legendary Hayes Gordon and his Ensemble Theatre and drama school. So it was just lovely to see him strutting his stuff, literally and metaphorically, in a role that is a perfect platform for the rich diversity of his talents.

At the same time, he definitely does not overshadow the likes of 73-year-old Robyn Nevin, utterly elegant in the most delicious of dresses, and of whom the critics lamented that her role of Mrs Higgins was not bigger, the engaging 67-year-old Tony Llewellyn-Jones as the affable Colonel Pickering, and the stalwart housekeeper Mrs Pearce, played by 68-year-old Deidre Rubenstein. And these three actors are also linked by having a common training ground. All of them are graduates of NIDA, the National Institute of Dramatic Art, with Nevin being in its very first intake, in 1959. So they are a credit to their old alma mater, and vice versa.

And while all of these older actors performed so seamlessly in their roles (how do players remember all those lines?!) that it was probably only I – with my special interest in ageing matters – who gave a thought to their ages, I do think that they and their impressive director ought to be congratulated for demonstrating that with our longer lives there is no need for some sort of arbitrary brake to stop any of us doing our thing, or new things, at any age.

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