Adjudicator: Ciarán Mooney

Date of attendance:  27th January 2018

I am not aware of another society associated with AIMS who does as long a run as Ballywillan Drama Group undertook with their ‘loverly’ production of My Fair Lady. Nor am I aware of a lengthier show. Sometimes the company performed this mammoth piece twice a day, which is an outstanding achievement. There was not a spare seat in the house in the University of Ulster’s Riverside Theatre in Coleraine, as the mostly stand-alone set greeted the audience as they arrived. From the moment the ensemble first appeared, it was clear we were in good hands, as they burst onto the stage with character, energy and intention. There was no sign of fatigue here. Then we were introduced to the fantastic front line, and I knew, this is going to be good…

Director Brian Logan, with Assistant Director Alan McClarty, did a fantastic job in a challenging space. While it is a pleasure to watch a show in this space, from an audience point of view, it is difficult to stage a musical in a theatre that appears to have little room backstage and barely any wings. This required Brian to design a stand-alone set for a narrative that very clearly changes from one famous place to another. This was, for the most part, cleverly actualized. There was a painted pink and light orange circular floor-design which added warmth and energy to the centre point of the stage. It was abstract enough to work as tiling in the street scenes or a plush carpet in the interior settings. It was a good idea to make the floor so striking in a theatre of this nature, with its amphitheatre of stadium seating, as the audience had a very definite view of the floor.

The rest of the set changed in subtle ways only. The opening street scene had a smoking fire-feature and crates shaped a nice space for the ensemble to naturally inhabit the street. The smoking fire itself was very atmospheric, cleverly off-centre, giving a focal point to some of the ensemble, while leaving centre stage free for the main action. This scene changed effortlessly to the interior scene (with its famous upper mezzanine level), simply by changing a fanned backdrop and removing a street lamp etc, opening up a hidden bookshelf and adding a desk (filled with props), a blue chair and the red chaise longue.

The Ascot scene was created by adding the looped curtain over an entrance and a silhouette of a horse and jockey in the upper background. A pair of Transylvanian flags were all that was needed for the Embassy Ball. An S-shaped garden furniture and background tree was just enough to establish Mrs. Higgins’ house.

If I were to be picky about one aspect of set design, it was how Higgins’ front door did not open in the street scene in which Freddy was waiting. The cast had to swoop in and out behind it. Of course, I know that it would have been the desired effect for the door to open and close, and no doubt the space challenges prevented this, but I still cannot say that this piece of scenery worked as cleverly as the rest. I was also unconvinced that the mezzanine level should have been used for this street scene either. With only a door to establish the sense of space, it was a little jarring that the chorus also walked on the level over the door. To me, they either looked like they were in the house or walking on top of the house. I suggest we have to be very clever, when designing sets in the abstract, that we use the blocking just as much as furniture to establish a sense of space. Elsewhere, the blocking was meaningful, and actors moved, sat, stood or lunged at one another with purpose.

The choice to use furniture, primarily, to establish a sense of space would not have been so successful, if it were not for a committed large group of stage personnel who managed to change the scenery in a prompt but controlled fashion. While the skeleton of the set did not move, the design was clever and new places were established by changing small details in the aesthetic. Nonetheless, there were lots of small fiddly bits and this could have been a drawn out cumbersome exercise. Thankfully, the large committed stage crew seemed well prepared by Stage Manager David Wray; competent in their duties, carrying out their tasks in a speedy yet unpanicked fashion. No doubt this team were well organised and clear on their responsibilities. The ensemble was kept on for as long as possible, dancing and hollering to keep the energy and atmosphere up, meaning that each scene flowed into the other and the scene changes rarely felt like a lull.

Musical Direction was by Eric Boyd, who was assisted by Andrew Robinson. The musicians were nicely tucked in at the side, without much choice I would imagine. Still, the band felt part of the overall show nonetheless. Eric has that effortless ability to set tempo by playing the keyboard, rather than using hand signals. He had the aid of a page turner and the eight musicians played very well. Obvious engagement by the MD with the performers did not seem necessary either. This suggests to me that principals and ensemble were very well prepared for their roles. The front-line were so competent in what they had to do, and chorus sang with confidence throughout.

Choreography and Musical Staging was by Sharon Logan, who was assisted by Laura Fisher. Each time the chorus appeared they were fully in character while bringing a fun element to all they did. Talents were utilized throughout the company, as those who had a particular skill-set for dance were allowed to shine. There were different things happening around the stage during ensemble numbers, adding detail and variety, making everything feel very natural and holistic. Moves were indicative of the time, suitably simple in places, well-rehearsed and always delivered with energy, commitment and enthusiasm. The ‘Ascot Gavotte’ was filled with dynamic head, fan and umbrella movements. The final pictures were always lovely throughout. The ensemble appeared to be having fun and thus we had fun with them. The bows were danced; which kept up the energy right to the end, something that was necessary in such a long show.

The role of Eliza Doolittle was played with competence by Katie Patton. She is an excellent singer who looks and sounds like she has had lots of training, a very good sense of technique and can mix her voice perfectly. She inspired confidence each time she sang. She captured the sense of the rough-around-the-edges earlier Eliza, she explored her transition with convincing and comic style and she emerged from her chrysalis as an elegant and mature product of Higgin’s teaching, and her own hard work. She mapped Eliza’s development very well from frantic flower girl to composed and confident ingénue. This was a super performance, overall.

Professor Henry Higgins was played by Assistant Director Alan McClarty. Higgins is so over-the-top misogynistic that it is comical and, rightly or wrongly, we enjoy the ridiculousness of his behaviour. He caught the ill-tempted dismissive ignorant way that he treats Eliza in the earlier scenes very well. The arc of Higgin’s semi-transformation to a slightly softer, slightly more self-aware, slightly more humble man was well constructed, particularly evident in the change of tone at the end of ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face’. There were shades of Alan Rickman in places. His action and diction were very good, and his vocalizing of these very wordy, high energy numbers was excellent. Like Katie, he had an extraordinary amount of material to learn and both inspired confidence with their masterful delivery of the work.

Richard Mairs was equally marvellous as the horrible yet highly entertaining Alfred P. Dolittle. His drunken acting, Del-Boy style attitude, his comic yet naturalistic line delivery, and his physical comedy were all excellent. There was a darkness to his character that I have not seen before. He was less ridiculous and more baddie than I am used to seeing. He was utterly convincing in his speech and movements and we got just enough of fun to enjoy his entertaining numbers, without losing that interesting darkness to his personality.

Paul Sleet as Colonel Pickering was the perfect foil to Higgins. He was more balanced, fairer, more decent than the Professor. He is the type of actor that must be very good in plays, such was the naturalism to his acting. He played it straight, and less ridiculous-toff as I have seen in the past, yet like his fellow cast mates, delivered the comedy in a convincing way when necessary, such as the telephone call to the Home Office and some bullfighter dance moves in ‘The Rain in Spain’. His reactions and listening skills were excellent.

This high standard of acting, that combined naturalism and convinceability with just the right amount of humour, was once again found in Olive Hemphill’s performance as Mrs. Higgins. Olive appeared in this company’s first ever musical twenty-three years ago and her experience has stood to her. She showed a suitable amount of shock at Ascot, without becoming a hysterical caricature. She was well able to handle her son and his antics and she was convincingly warm to Eliza when she took refuge at her home. She is another performer who knows how to listen and react very well and give us a giggle when required.

Another actress who managed to manoeuvre her way from stern to warm was Laura Fisher as Mrs. Pearce. She showed all the suitable panic a housekeeper in such a home would when a common flower girl turns up at the house. She was perfectly insistent that Higgins establish the terms in which Eliza would stay and she gradually warmed to the young girl as the play moved on. Whether she was harsh or soft, she was always in the role of protector and measured her reactions very well indeed.

Peter Easton, as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, had all the wide-eyed love-sick youthful optimism required to play another form of foil to Higgins. He was the perfect goody for Eliza, who otherwise has to contend with various forms of abuse from the Professor and her father. He played the Ascot moments, in which he found Eliza charming and funny, very well. He had all the warmth necessary and his singing was very nice. He held the final note of ‘On the Street Where You Live’ beautifully.

Jim Everett showed a good range as an actor by playing George the Bartender and Professor Zoltan Karpathy. His accent was very good as George, suitably frustrated by Doolittle’s earlier antics and suitably pandering towards him when Doolittle hits the big time. He made an appropriate nuisance of himself as Karpathy and he added a sense of comedy and tension to this part of the show.

Patrick O’ Connor and Matt Suddaby were full of character as Doolittle’s partners in crime, Jamie and Harry. They had great accents and all the energy and commitment needed to sell the fun of these sequences.

Tom Waddell played the Butler and Lord Boxington. His is upper-lip was suitably stiff throughout his performances and he managed his material well.

The relationships between the characters were well explored with convincing naturalism. There was plenty of dynamic drama sparking off Higgins and Eliza. Characters charted their way nicely through their own journeys: Higgins moved from stoic misogynist to self-doubting semi-romantic. Eliza moved from messy street urchin to an empowered woman of grace. Pickering moved from bystander to active defendant of Eliza. Mrs. Pearce’s harsh-exterior melted away as the entire household began to root for Eliza. Doolittle went from tortured bankrupt to tortured bank-roller and Mrs. Higgins went from shocked snob to supportive champion of her son’s student.

I might argue that Eliza delivered too much to the audience at times. This needed to be cheated more, so that the audience can see her face without it feeling like she is breaking the fourth wall and delivering so much directly to the audience, as though it were a concert. I might argue that Zoltan Karpathy’s accent was a little thick. I acknowledge that he is Hungarian but if Higgins was able to transform Eliza’s accent, so deeply embedded in her way of speaking, and Karpathy was his greatest student, who speaks 32 languages and claims to be able to cite Eliza’s origins, I imagine that Higgins would have helped him establish more of an RP accent, like he did with Eliza.

The costumes, provided by Utopia Costumes and co-ordinated by Lisa Mairs, Sharon Logan and Ann McCubbin, were sublime throughout. The ensemble in the street scenes were cute as a button with their hats, caps, suits and petticoats, and when ladies and gentlemen of a higher caste appeared in the street, it was very obvious by their fine attire. The clothing worn by the principals was suitable throughout and completely convincing. Higgins and Pickering always looked as though their suits and smoking jackets were expensive, as was Doolittle’s rig-out when he had made it good and was about to get married. The maids black and white dresses and aprons looked fantastic. Mrs. Pearce looked super in her smart, modest and sensible brown uniform dress. The chrome motif in the Ascot scene was stunning and everyone looked marvellous at the Embassy Ball. Eliza’s first costume was lovely, and she looked gorgeous in her later, more upper-class, outfits. Some of the hats throughout caused sight-line issues. While they were fabulous, the performers needed to cheat their heads more, so their faces could always be seen.

Hair and Wig design was by the very busy Sharon Logan. There was a long list of people to help with this backstage and make-up was supervised by Chloe Freedman. Katie Patton’s real-life natural curls were gorgeous and the use of the hair-piece for the ball was clever. Mrs. Pearce’s wig gave her the perfect hair style. Zoltan’s messy black-wig and long scraggly beard might have been a little over-the-top considering the naturalism of the rest of the show and the high quality of wigs and make-up elsewhere, but I understand the comedy that was intended. Those in the street-scenes were always suitably dirtied up.

The use of a follow-spot on principals was excellent and gave clear focus to those who were singing, particularly when they are surrounded by many other performers. The end part of ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ used a nice spot-light effect. There was a super rain-effect that made it look as though it was lashing rain onto the whole stage A gobo before ‘I’m Getting Married in the Morning’ gave a lovely sense of twilight to the early morning session and the wash of warm yellow light gave great energy to the dawn.

Sound design was by Darren Gardiner and was excellent throughout. Balance between the band and the performers was very good and every word could be heard perfectly. Those who had solo lines within choral moments were always heard clearly. There was a good horse-racing effect used in the Ascot Race. The crackling behind the pre-recorded gramophone pieces was good. Mrs. Higgin’s microphone could have matched her own skin tone more closely, to enhance subtlety.

Properties designed by Karen Hunter were of a high quality. Higgin’s desk was well-dressed. The gramophones looked excellent. The bird cage, the broadsheet newspapers, the pipes, the baskets with flowers, the goblets, the tea-cups were all high quality and excellently sourced.

The ending chosen was more sentimental than I have previously seen, with Higgins walking towards Eliza on his final “slippers” line. It was the ending we all wanted, but perhaps should not have gotten. It suggested a very transformed Higgins, which is more optimistic than usually imagined for a man whose most romantic moment culminates in the line ‘I’ve grown accustomed to her face’. Still, this was a tiny few seconds in what was, overall, a very well-produced and performed show.

Each and every person who appeared as part of the ensemble was full of character and brought their acting skills to create engaging crowd scenes. The transition from street-workers to aristocratic society people to subordinate household staff was very well achieved. Each time the chorus appeared, it was a joy. The energy, commitment and pace of the front-line never lulled, as they dynamically drove the narrative forward with competence and skill, culminating in a great night’s entertainment.

Ciarán Mooney.