Review: My Fairfield Lady at Royal Court Liverpool ***
The Royal Court has always been committed to bringing new work to the stage, and My Fairfield Lady is one of six shows being premiered at Roe Street during 2019.
In its structure and tone, it’s also a departure from what might be considered the traditional Royal Court fayre of big characters, big laughs and big song-and-dance numbers.
In fact, I overheard one fellow audience member say she’d been expecting a musical.
But be aware, you’re not going to dance all night, there’s no rain in Spain, and there’s only a hint of getting to the church on time.
Because while My Fairfield Lady as a title might nod in the direction of Lerner and Loewe – and the story to George Bernard Shaw before them of course – it’s no Scoused-up pastiche.
At the heart of the show is actually a nifty reverse-Pygmalion concept.
Lizzie (Jessica Dyas) is the straight-laced, well-spoken owner of a Liverpool city centre flower shop who falls for Danny O’Brien’s Higson – who it turns out has been concealing his salt-of-the-earth Scouse roots beneath a concocted middleclass persona.
But when Higson’s seriously-ill mum (Julie Glover) insists he find himself a nice, down-to-earth Liverpudlian lass to keep his feet on the ground – rather than on a pair of playboy skis – Lizzie is enlisted to play the big-haired, short-skirted, pert part.
Lizzie (Jessica Dyas) gets a makeover lesson from Steph (Helen Carter) and Robbie (Matthew Walker). Photos by Activate Digital
To pass muster however, she has to drop her overly ‘nayce’ tones and ‘lern yerself Scouse’, a challenge achieved with the help of Helen Carter’s outspoken Steph and a Northern Rail timetable in what is one of the stand-out scenes of the show.
Think of the name being really pretty and “then be a bit disappointed” advises Steph who also suggests Lizzie channel her inner dolphin to help with her intonation. Dialect coaches take note.
With her new accent armour, Lizzie is presented to fading mum Mary and vulnerable dad Alf (Michael Starke), But will she pass muster as a bird from Bootle, or be rumbled as an interloper from the Wirral?
The action unfolds on Olivia de Monceau’s revolving lightpanel set which is hugely ambitious but very effective, while there is some incidental music in the show – a charming soundtrack from the ubertalented Patrick Dineen that has overtones of the dolce vita of yesteryear.
Higson (Danny O'Brien) with parents Mary (Julie Glover) and Alf (Mickey Starke)
While it's not the strongest show the theatre has ever staged, there's plenty to like about My Fairfield Lady, although it its present form it has a number of issues.
And although it isn’t aiming to be an in-your-face Scousecentric comedy, in its attempt to make that differentiation it risks heading too far in the other direction.
It’s so soft, gentle and understated – from the opening scene onwards - that at times it feels a bit anaemic; the story may not be naturally rollicking and outrageous, but it still needs dramatic heft, and the delivery as it stands needs to be much punchier.
Injecting more power in to proceedings would also smooth over any improbabilities in the plot and, crucially, help energise the central relationship (complete with its awfully awkward analogical flirting), making it one the audience can really get behind and cheer on.