My Fair Lady review – comedy and chemistry light up Opera North’s musical-theatre triumph

My Fair Lady review – comedy and chemistry light up Opera North’s musical-theatre triumph

Playhouse, Leeds
Katie Bird is an irresistible Eliza Doolittle in this inspired show, which takes its interrogation of social mobility seriously but with a sparkling lightness of touch

The Lord above gave man an arm of iron: so says Alfred Doolittle, England’s most original moralist. By design rather than luck, James Brining’s new My Fair Lady (a co-production by Opera North and Leeds Playhouse) gives its Prof Higgins just the opposite. Loose-limbed, soft-edged and chaotic, his vulnerable model of masculinity – set against an Eliza of unwavering wit and self-possession – offsets the book’s occasional misogyny, in a production that takes its interrogation of social mobility seriously but still conjures up plenty of comedy and chemistry along the way.

Casting opera singers in musical theatre can go very well or very badly; in the case of soprano Katie Bird – like much of the cast, a member of Opera North’s chorus – it’s pure inspiration. From her very first “loverly”, sheis an irresistible Eliza: radiantly sung, innately funny and thoroughly plausible in a characterisation that avoids cliche on both sides of her “rain in Spain” transformation. John Hopkins’s Higgins takes a little longer to hit his stride, but I’m an Ordinary Man finds him visibly, if not always audibly, in his element, and the brittle, laugh-or-cry energy he brings to his later scenes with (and without) Eliza is compelling.

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