It's timely that in this 100th anniversary year of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Sheffield's Crucible Theatre has chosen the musical based on it, My Fair Lady, to be its Christmas show. For those unfamiliar with the story (can there be anyone?) it tells the tale of phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Dominic West) and a bet he makes with his friend Colonel Pickering (Anthony Calf) that he can pass off flower-seller Eliza Doolittle (Carly Bawden) as a Duchess within six months.
This production is an out-and-out crowd pleaser, making the most of the show's big numbers, especially 'I Could Have Danced All Night', 'On the Street Where You Live' and 'Get Me To The Church on Time' - this latter is an energetic romp featuring the ensemble alongside Alfred Doolittle (Martyn Ellis), Harry (Chris Bennett) and Jamie (Carl Sanderson) which receives the most rapturous response from an audience I've heard in a long time.
Daniel Evans' direction and Alistair David's choreography ensure this is a show which never loses pace - the first act is ninety minutes, yet flies by, and the second act feels half the length of its sixty-five minutes' running time. The scene changes are swift, aided by a fabulous revolving set, courtesy of designer Paul Wills and the energy levels of the cast remain high throughout despite the ensemble in particular being asked to do some very taxing routines.
Bawden shines as Doolittle - perhaps an unconventional take on the role in some respects given her very slight frame and softer than usual demeanour - but she is a very magnetic lead with a great singing voice. Louis Maskell also shines as Freddy, whilst Anthony Calf, Nicola Sloane (Mrs Pearce) and Richenda Carey (Mrs Higgins) demand the audience's sympathies in their supporting roles. West returns to the Crucible after a triumphant turn as Iago in Othello and here he demonstrates further his versatility as an actor as Higgins, with a character who is arrogant, foolish and ignorant despite his education, yet never feels irredeemable or incapable of change. His singing voice, whilst perfectly fine, is not as accomplished as the rest of the cast's, but as the role is largely spoken, this doesn't especially matter.
The lighting design (by Tim Mitchell) is clever and detailed - as is now expected of the Crucible - making full use of the set and props to create different moods and locations. Costumes are beautiful - if safe - although some of the wigs were very obviously wigs and the performers' microphones were visible to an almost distracting extent, especially in the second half.
The live orchestra sound wonderful, although in places it was hard to hear the cast over them, particularly for members of the audience sat at the far sides of the stage who had to strain to hear the songs and dialogue in some places.
After rapturous responses to all of the songs throughout, the play was greeted with a standing ovation at the end - and well deserved - it's a thoroughly entertaining show, deliberately designed to please as many people as possible and going by the responses I've heard to the show, succeeding in doing so.
My Fair Lady is at the Crucible, Sheffield until 26 January