A day at the races with My Fair Lady

Moneybags journalist Jessica Anne Wood met the cast and director to chat about the upcoming performances.

The horses are lined at the starting gate. Time ticks by slowly as the horses become impatient to get going. They’re off! The women are dressed in their finest and the men in their top hats and tails as they watch the horses go by, each hoping that they have bet on the right horse. One voice starts to rise above the rest, ‘Come on Dover. Come on Dover. Come on Dover, move your blooming arse.’

The cast of the latest production of ‘My Fair Lady’ were recently seen at the Kenilworth Racecourse in their Ascot finest at an event hosted to mark the latest production. While the racecourse is an apt setting, the horse, which won the My Fair Lady race, was named Twinkle Toes and not Dover. However, the pace was the same as that experienced when watching ‘My Fair Lady’, whether it be the stage production or the Audrey Hepburn film.

‘My Fair Lady’ is set to grace the stage of the Artscape Opera House from 16 July for a limited 23 performances.

Adrian Van Stolk, chairman of the executive committee of G&S (Gilbert and Sullivan Society), the company putting on the production says: “[My Fair Lady] is seen as one of the quintessential musicals, they call it the perfect musical. Musicals are quite tough, you have to get a combination of the story and the music and the acting and they call it the perfect musical when all of those come together.”

Setting the scene

This production was previously staged eight years ago, with some of the cast coming back to reprise their roles. However, don’t expect the same show if you saw it previously, the cast has been expanded and there have been changes made to the set.

Linda Eedes, the actress who is to play Eliza Doolittle, looks resplendent in a floor-length white gown with a black and white sash across her chest. Other members of the cast float through the room in their costumes as the atmosphere is changed to a scene from the past.

While chatting with the cast, they effortlessly slip into character, taking on the accents they use in the show.

Kyla Thorburn, director and choreographer, notes that this is a production that appeals to generations of people. “I think every age group knows [My Fair Lady] and I think it is one of those musicals that grannies have passed down to moms, have passed down to children. I have actually put children in the show as well, in the big cockney scenes just to make it a little bit more real and a little more accessible to kids as well.”

It takes about 18 months from the initial decision to do a play/musical to the curtain lifting for the opening performance.

Meeting the cast

When she speaks, Eedes takes on the posh British accent that Eliza acquires during the course of the production, effortlessly slipping into character. Eedes has featured in numerous musicals in the past and expresses her excitement at landing the role of Eliza Doolittle. “I have always wanted to play the role of Eliza, it has always been a dream role. I think for any musical theatre actress it is one of those plum roles.”

To prepare for the audition, Eedes started to sing again, having taken about a five year break from the stage to focus on her family. “I started training specifically on the songs that Eliza sings, and they’re challenging because they start with a more cockney role which is quite guttural and brash and then they go into a very lyrical soprano. There is a big range from the one to the other. I had to start thinking about that. The cockney accent is also very important and she transitions from being this street woman to this very strong characters. So the metamorphosis is really in her character, but also obviously just from a superficial level she goes from being this brash cockney to a very elegant lady.”

Nick Plummer is one of the actors playing Professor Henry Higgins. He has been performing for the past 30 years but My Fair Lady is one production that stands out for him. “It’s the most fun I’m having with any of the productions. I’ve done small productions in the northern suburbs, coming from the UK I did a number of productions over there, but this is the most fun I’ve had and the most enjoyable. It is such a professional bunch and everyone is just so committed to [the production].”

While many of the actors noted the impact of being in the performance on their personal life, Plummer notes that, in his case, this has been positive. “I have two small daughters, ten and 12 and they are just beside themselves and can’t wait to come and see it. They learnt the lines before I did, they learnt the songs before I did and they like me being Professor Higgins.”

Barend van der Westhuizen takes up the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill. This is his first production for G&S, previously he has performed opera with the Brooklyn Theatre in Pretoria, as well as with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I think everyone in the play grew up with My Fair Lady because it is one of the classics. I certainly grew up with the CD and the DVD with my parents. I’ve been singing the role I’m singing in this production, the big song ‘I have often walked’, since standard six, so it has really sunk in. So when this came along, this time I decided why not, let’s go and try out,” notes van der Westhuizen when explaining his connection to My Fair Lady.

Graham Boxall reprises his role as Afred P. Doolittle, having taken up the role eight years ago. This is his fortieth year with G&S. Having enjoyed the show and the role of Alfred Doolittle previously, Boxall was driven to audition for the role again.

“It’s a very big show, a large cast of people, I think we have about 65 to 70 on stage and many backstage, so it’s quite a challenge from a choreography point of view, but it’s a very nice team of people though, so it’s a lot of fun,” reveals Boxall.

Michael Harris is another to reprise a role previous portrayed, that of Colonel Hugh Pickering. He has many years of experience in the theatre, having done directing and producing, in addition to acting.

As with Boxall, Harris was drawn to the show a second time due to his positive experience in the role and the production previously. “I love the part, I think it is one of the best parts that you can get in musical theatre.”

There was a palpable excitement in the air as the cast chatted about the final month of rehearsal leading up to the opening performance on 16 July.

A story still relevant today

While many may believe that My Fair Lady is just a musical to enjoy, Eedes highlights there are underlying themes that are relevant to South African society today.

“The underlining themes of the show I feel are very relevant to women today, and particular to South Africans. And the reason for that is it is actually a very empowering female role. A lot of people feel that that show, particularly Professor Higgins’ role is quite chauvinistic, and he is, but the reality is that during the course of the show, Eliza realises that it is not actually about learning a different way to speak that is actually going to change who she is, it is actually believing in herself. And she finds this inner confidence and strength and realises that she doesn’t actually need Professor Higgins to be something in life. That is really what this show it about, it is a metamorphosis her character goes through, which is actually a story of empowerment for women I think,” explains Eedes.

She adds: “Also another thing I think is particularly relevant in South Africa is obviously this is a show which is about the classes in English back in the Edwardian era, and it is about a young woman who wants to better her circumstances. She does so through education and speaking differently and the rest of it and finds herself caught between two worlds. She doesn’t fit into the world she came from, but she is never going to be a part of the world she is going to because that is not part of her history so she finds herself between these two worlds, which I believe is something a lot of South Africans can relate to. But [she] then realises that it is actually about her own journey rather than a comparative journey from where she came from. It is actually about discovering herself and that she is defined by so much more than the way she talks, her education or whatever the case may be.”

Tickets are available via Computicket as cost between R150 and R325.

For more information on the production, click here.

(Image: My Fair Lady Facebook page, Photographer: Kim Stevens)