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THEATER

With a Little Luck

Life imitates art as this 'Lady's' star must transform her natural Cockney speech to posh English.

April 01, 2001|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a regular contributor to Calendar

LONDON — More than 40 years after it first opened here, "My Fair Lady" is once again the talk of theater land. It seemed impossible that any new production could emulate the excitement of the 1956 original, which arrived in London in 1958, starring England's Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl coached by Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) to modify her vowel sounds and pass herself off as a society lady.

Yet it has happened.

The National Theatre, which in recent years has specialized in reviving classic American musicals like "Guys and Dolls," 'Carousel" and "Oklahoma!," has done the trick again with "My Fair Lady'-Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion."

The production opened to rave reviews, and is already London's hottest ticket: It is sold out for the duration of its run at the National through June, when it will transfer to a West End theater.

This time around, Eliza Doolittle is not being played by an unknown-at least to British audiences. Martine McCutcheon, 24, was a star of the long-running BBC soap opera "EastEnders," set in a working-class east London community; she played a long-suffering barmaid named Tiffany Mitchell. When her character was written out of the series two years ago, it made headlines in Britain's tabloid press. McCutcheon then embarked on a singing career, and had two hit albums and a No. 1 hit single, "Perfect Moment." Still, apart from a spell at drama school, she had no real stage experience.

Trevor Nunn, artistic director of the National Theatre, who is directing "My Fair Lady," has a long track record with musicals: He directed "Cats" and "Les Miserables" in the West End and on Broadway. So why did he choose McCutcheon as Eliza?

There were obvious reasons. First, McCutcheon can act. Second, she can sing.

But there is a third reason, one that points to dramatic problems with earlier versions of "My Fair Lady'-both the stage production starring Andrews and the 1964 film, starring Audrey Hepburn. Those two actresses spoke English with genteel accents, and thus had to assume Cockney accents for the earlier scenes of the musical, before Eliza has been tutored by her mentor, Higgins. McCutcheon, on the other hand, was raised in a working-class London community, and naturally speaks in a Cockney accent. So the question for audiences is whether McCutcheon can speak in "posh" tones and thus gain entrance to polite society. Nunn views McCutcheon's upbringing as a trump card.

In an interview before the opening of "My Fair Lady," Nunn observed: "It's wonderful finally to have the problem of Eliza the right way round. Martine's instincts are the instincts of language she learned growing up in the East End. Therefore, her task is an elocutionary one. And that's the right struggle for her to be attempting."

Andrews and Hepburn, added Nunn, "had to be taught a form of Cockney speech, and sometimes the result is you can hear they've been taught. So all we're waiting for is for them to drop it and reveal their real voice. With Martine in the role, there's dramatic tension."

Certainly the critics seem to think so. Apart from relishing the extraordinary number of memorable songs in "My Fair Lady" ('On the Street Where You Live," 'With a Little Bit of Luck," 'Wouldn't It be Loverly," 'I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face'), they solidly approved of McCutcheon's performance, which has been interrupted by a series of illnesses.

"She may be funny in the early scenes of squawking indignation and tearful terror," noted Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph, "but as she grows, McCutcheon displays a grace, a generosity of spirit and a vulnerability that are deeply affecting." John Peter of the Sunday Times called McCutcheon "a young artist oozing energy and confidence from every pore, with the kind of naturally magnetic stage presence which signals the birth of true talent."

These notices represent even more of a triumph for McCutcheon than they seem. Although she is well-known as a TV soap actress and has high visibility here as a pop singer, it is fair to say she has never been subjected to anything like the disciplines involved in rehearsing for "My Fair Lady."

The National imposes a rigid, almost scholarly approach to reviving musicals. Nunn began rehearsals with a scrupulously close investigation of the text. He ordered the cast to read the book of Lerner and Loewe's musical, and then its source material, "Pygmalion." Much earnest discussion followed about the suffragette movement, Fabian socialism and the sexual politics of 1910, the year the play was written. This went on for two weeks.

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