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Saturday, November 21, 2009


(Pic by Val Adamson: Gina Shmukler and Lisa Bobbert share the role of Eliza)

Ralph Lawson breaks boundaries with this new production presented by the Playhouse Company (Review by Caroline Smart)

Set to run over the festive season, The Playhouse Company’s production of My Fair Lady opened last night in the Playhouse Opera.

Much of my private work as a voice coach (for speech production) sees me equipping my clients with the capacity for strong communication skills in English and thereby increasing their income-earning capacity in the marketplace – whether this be based in the theatre or corporate world. Therefore My Fair Lady is close to my heart and I make no excuses for quoting from my review of the Playhouse’s 2006 production of this musical:

“Whether or not Lerner and Loewe’s much-loved musical My Fair Lady forms part of your upbringing and culture, don’t miss it! No-one could be fail to be moved at some level – if not all of them – by this delightful and extremely humorous tale of an irascible and egotistical phonetics professor who decides to take a common Cockney flower girl out of the gutter and pass her off as a Duchess – all because of a bet! As her command of English bridges the “class” gulf between them, he unbends considerably and they end up as equals – and what their future will be is left to the audience to decide!”

While Ralph Lawson is back giving a fine interpretation of the crusty Professor Higgins, he is also the director of this production. He brings his particular skills of language and comedy to the fore while breaking the boundaries of time-honoured presentations.

The biggest innovation in this My Fair Lady is the set by Andrew Botha and Stan Knight which is comprised mainly of backdrops and panels which are often “back-lit” to create a certain transparency, effectively created by lighting designer Dylan Heaton. Replacing the usual chunky sets which need to be trucked on, these panels are “flown” in at twice the speed and half the noise lending a lightness and visual depth to the show. I believe this will be a major talking point as the die-hards will miss the familiar “look” while others will welcome the introduction of new technology. It worked for me – the only times I missed the solidity of brickwork was in the street scenes outside the pub.

Another interesting new twist Ralph Lawson has produced is to give the character of Freddy more substance. Here, one sees Freddy (played by Cobus Venter) as a wannabee Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire, introducing movement to what is normally a fairly static On the Street Where You Live. This Freddy is a force to be reckoned with which makes Eliza’s threat of marrying him and Higgins’s rejection of the idea all the more logical.

As Eliza (a role she shares with Lisa Bobbert), Gina Shmukler is a pure delight – fun, sassy and likeable – giving the right kind of dramatic tone to what is a naiive and endearing character who finds herself catapulted from her poor but safe environment to a level over which she does not have immediate control.

Frank Graham is solid and dependable as Colonel Pickering skilfully fielding the barbs from the irascible Higgins. Themi Venturas shines as Eliza’s father, the irrepressible Alfred Doolittle, well supported by his two henchmen who are played by Bryan Payne and Michael Gritten (he also plays the smooth Zoltan Karpathy who tries to unmask Liza). Jane Ross is suitably dignified as the long-suffering Mrs Pearce and it is good to see Paddy McKew back on stage as Henry’s mother, the indomitable and much put-upon Mrs Higgins,

Naum Rousine conducts the KZN Philharmonic and Music Director Andrew Warburton has drilled the cast into good ensemble work. Neil Stuart-Harris’s designs are impressively elegant and Mark Hawkins has created some vibrant choreography. Gail Muir is sound designer and, apart from a seriously problematic opening scene, the sound remained constant for the rest of the performance.

My only other problems are some very clumsy moves which need re-working and the fact that the perspective of the street scene outside Professor Higgins’s home makes the characters as tall as the bay windows!

My Far Lady runs until December 30. Prebooked tickets range from R80 to R120. Booking is at Computicket, on 083 915 8000 or online at, or call 031-369 9540. Special low priced performances for groups are available: contact Andre-B van Wyk on 031-369 9407 or email – Caroline Smart

A further review will follow of Lisa Bobbert’s interpretation of the role of Eliza