Sunday, September 24, 2023



These last years, when I have very largely given up going to the theatre, one showday per annum remains a fixture on my calendar. Dinner and a show with my dear friend Richard Marrett.


Today was that day.


It wasn't supposed to be. Richard is musical director for the festive season musical at the (professional) Court Theatre, and I had marked that down as our 'date' for 2023. But ...


The Christchurch amateur (with the occasional pro) group known these days as Showbiz has never been an attraction for me. Copycat co-productions of recentish musicals I don't need. My last visit to one of their shows was to see Betty Helawell (superb professional) as The Merry Widow in 1967.


When I saw they were proposing My Fair Lady, I thought (rightly, as it turns out) oyoy! Someone else in New Zealand is amortising their production costs. Scenery and costumes ..


Why on earth would I want to see My Fair Lady again? I saw it in the selfsame Christchurch Theatre Royal in 1962. Paddy Moore and David Oxley. I saw the soso film. And, in 1972, fresh back from Monte Carlo, I took part in a production at the Opera House, Harrogate. I had a memorable time in Harrogate, and posed during the run for my first (and last) nude calendar boy shots ...


So. My Fair Lady? Again. Decidedly not enough to drag me from Gerolstein to the remnants of Christchurch. But ...


This Showbiz production had a hard time a-borning. On-off-Covidded-on again-recast ... nothing had gone in its favour ... but they persisted. Well, I guess they had these splendid second-hand sets and costumes ...  And they went to it with a will. A fine poster-advertising campaign, and WHAT! a live orchestra of 25?  Conducted, you've guessed it, by Richard Marrett. Who else? 


Odd. The Am-Pros can sport a full Broadway orchestra, while the professional theatre gives us three synthesisers and a vacuum cleaner? Something is screwy here. But what a plus! For me, that real, live orchestra is a sign of serious intentions ...


Richard, knowing my quirks and tastes, and my preference for seeing a show new to me over an old favourite, didn't even suggest that I come to see My Fair Lady redivivus. But ....


Last minute catastrophe. This happens when you have professional players in basically amateur shows. Professor Higgins got a better offer. Fair enough. But where to find another?  Someone was on the ball. Our old(ish) friend Michael Lee Porter -- I've known him since he was a student -- had just finished the long run of Come from Away around Australia ... MLP? Can you learn that huge role in x days?


He arrived post haste in Christchurch, and, bless him, he came to visit this ailing dodderer with a bottle of Tanqueray!!!  So, OK. I had to go see his show. Only right and fair. Well, it was half a century since I'd last had contact with it ... should be all right. Semi-fresh. (It wasn't, I remembered great chunks of the word-for-word dialogue and music ... )


Anyway, Richard came and fetched me in his electric white stunning-mobile, and we headed for Christchurch. And the Theatre Royal. I played the Theatre Royal in 1967-8 in NZ Opera's Madama Butterfly. It has been much remade since then, extremely prettily but with perhaps less eye for practicality than prettiness. The WC situation is disastrous. There is no clock anywhere (no, we don't all have mobile phones). The lack of a central aisle and the tiny space between the rows is, in spite of excellent usherettes, disastrous. But if you are seated in the middle of row E, and need a (disabled) loo ... 'go to level 2 ', I was told. Consultants? Bah! 


Anyway, on to the show itself. Was it well done? Yes, it was. I missed a few remembered (from 1972!) bits of the ur-text ... but from the moment that superb orchestra struck up the familiar overture and you heard that hardly amplified sound, I went YEHHHHH!  


Unfortunately, the overture was accompanied by some silly on-stage parading ...  we ARE still able to listen to an overture without looking at extraneous chorus business. By the way, if there were that many lovely flowers for sale round Covent Garden, what chance would Eliza have with her sixpenny bunches of violets?  And everybody so clean and scrubbed and hyperactive.


Well, chorus overacting is not limited to the amateur theatre. I fear I was once even guilty of it myself. But this lot, even if they mugged a good bit, sang and danced up a treat. And, like any chorus, waved their mugs 'full of' beer upside down: the streets of the Piazza must have been swimming in alcohol.


There were little niggles like this throughout. The four or five coins in Eliza's basket must have been gold sovereigns ... and which way do the horses run at Ascot? Right to left, if I remember (ummm) ... and ...  but who really cares? The production looked delightful and left the piece-as-writ pretty well alone. We got a fairly competent by-the-book re-staging of a slightly-slimmed version, with a lot of familiar and characterful choreography. Thank goodness. Pygmalion does not want a Calixto Bialystock.




Casting director, take a bow/curtsey.


These are amateurs?


Well, I known MLP isn't. And I know that Emily Burns who played Eliza isn't ... 


MLP first. Well, my friend, it's often difficult when you have to write about an old buddy. But its a joyous feeling when you can freely and heart-feltedly say 'Wow!'  This was a stunner of a performance ... You gave a third and even a fourth dimension to a character whose 'growth' has always been neglected in favour of the progressive changes in Eliza. Here, it wasn't just Eliza who changed, we also saw her effect on Higgins. And you sang!  (Well, we know you can do that) ... This was, quite simply, an anthology performance!

Emily Burns I saw some years ago as Wendla in Spring Awakening at NASDA. She is now a worthy professional, a beautiful woman with a fine soprano, and ... well, Elizas since day two have had difficulty with the accent thing, and like most before her, Ms Burns was at her best as the 'posh' Eliza. A little more directorial care might have evened the irregular accent out, but, that done, I would say this young lady could play this role on just about any stage in the world.

So? Is My Fair Lady just a case of Higgins and Eliza?  Definitely not. And Showbiz (how I hate that title!) have cast their production in depth. In real, appreciable depth.


John Clarke, who is surely no amateur, was an outstanding Doolittle, Cameron Melville gave the spoony 'On the Street Where you Live' in splendid fashion, and Libby Fraser invested Mrs Pearce with more character and importance than I had thought possible. Warwick Shillito was a dapper Pickering who could actually sing 'You Did It' and Angela Johnson (professional) confirmed her place as the grande dame of Christchurch musical theatre in the role of Mrs Higgins... 


OK. Suffice it that this, my third and last My Fair Lady, was a very efficient and enjoyable evening. They even just about got away with the mushy ending Lerner tacked on to Shaw's story, in spite of a poor staging of the last scene. Grin. I remember our 1972 Eliza, a member of Red Ladder, used to hurl the slippers at Higgins as soon as the curtain came down. Shaw's Eliza, of course, married Freddy ...


Anyhow, great work, all. Ms Burns, Mr Clarke, that grand, grand orchestra, the ninety nuns who must have huge opticians bills after sewing all those Ascot and ball costumes  ... But it was Higgins's show. MLP, my friend, you gave a new dimension to a character we all thought we knew so well. Which gave a very familiar musical a whole new interest and balance. 


My evening out, however, didn't end there. My Marrett evenings out include dinner and a show. And the dinner was pretty spectacular, too. We adjourned to the adjacent Argentinian restaurant, Casa Publica where we dined lavishly on Espetinho, and charred pineapple salsa ... until I had to call for a doggy bag. I wasn't leaving my Chorizo Argentino behind. And everyone knows I don't have a dog.

Home in the Marrettmobile ..  9 o'clock (it was a 4 o'clock show) ... it's like Berlin days. So lit up after a show and a rare evening out. I grab the Gordon's bottle and start to write ..

I'll have to keep my eye on Show Biz from now on. Their next production is Kinky Boots. I don't think it's for me. Just another The Full Monty. And, I fear, no lovely orchestra. Back to the synthesisers and the vacuum cleaner? Pop music. And, I think, another drag show? Yawn. One is fun, but ...  So I'll turn back to the Court Theatre for Christmas. Two Marrett nights in one year? I can never remember the title of the piece they are doing. Something about a man who talks to his father's ghost and ... It's not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead or Rock a Bye Hamlet ... takes place in Elsinore. I think. I'm told it's Something Rotten. Anyway, I hav'n't seen it ... then in April there is to be the exquisite Fairystories at the Piano ... and Ravil Atlas will hopefully give us something previously unseen .. Christchurch is about to have a good season I feel. 

And guess what? The Piano -- much more comfortable than the Theatre Royal -- is right next to Casa Publica ....!
















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