Theatre: A truly fair lady takes the role of Eliza Dolittle

Mark Feakins and Katie Mather in STOS's My Fair Lady at the Sheffield Lyceum, November 14-18
Mark Feakins and Katie Mather in STOS's My Fair Lady at the Sheffield Lyceum, November 14-18

When it comes to the truly great musicals, they don’t get much bigger or better loved than My Fair Lady.

The show made a star of Julie Andrews on Broadway in 1956 and went on to become one of the world’s most enduring movies, with Audrey Hepburn taking on the iconic role of Eliza Doolittle, the Covent Garden flower girl who undergoes a remarkable transformation into a high society beauty thanks to elocution lessons.

Caption: Audrey Hepburn stars as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady

Caption: Audrey Hepburn stars as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady

The Lerner and Loewe songs include some of the most popular songs ever written - Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, The Rain in Spain, The Street Where You Live, I Could have Danced All Night.

But with such a degree of popularity comes a big challenge for any director approaching the show for the first time - what do you do with something that is so firmly entrenched in the popular imagination?

Strict regulations on how often the show is revived means that My Fair Lady has not actually been available for amateur companies since the 1990s.

Sheffield’s STOS Theatre Company’s only previous staging of the show took place at the Lyceum Theatre in 1994, the year before Mark Harris - who now directs this rare revival - joined the team.

She has to be believable as both the Cockney flowergirl and the well spoken lady

Since then Mark has appeared on stage as an actor many times and directed shows as diverse as Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques and smaller pieces like The Baker’s Wife and She Loves Me.

My Fair Lady, however, is a personal favourite and when the chance arose for him to direct, he knew this was not the time for worrying about its legendary status.

And with a strong support team made up of musical director Anna Wright, choreographer Claire Harriott and assistant director Jill Beckett - not to mention a cast made up of some of the region’s finest non-professional talent - he is confident he can give a fresh and exciting take on an old favourite.

He decided he wasn’t going to be swayed by public expectation of what they felt they ought to be seeing.

“I know everybody has this perception of Audrey Hepburn but that was somebody else’s version and this production needs to be mine,” Mark points out.

For example, the STOS My Fair Lady - Katie Mather - is blonde and will not be changing hair colour just to meet audience expectations.

“We had 11 girls audition for the part and then we got down to a shortlist of four but Katie was the perfect choice so far as I was concerned and I don’t think it matters at all that she is blonde or that she is perhaps a little younger than other Elizas.

“I think it’s a difficult role for any actress to play but I’m trying to give Katie all the knowledge I have as a performer to help her find her own way into the part.

“The main thing is that she has to be likeable and believable as both the Cockney flower girl and the well spoken lady she turns into - you have to want her to succeed, and to achieve her goal.”

An enormous part of that transformation, of course, is down to her relationship with her teacher, the outspoken Professor Higgins, here played by Mark Feakins.

“Their relationship is what makes this seem more like a play with music rather than just  musical,” says the director. “It’s a journey for them both really and they are two characters who balance each other out in every sense, perhaps only ever really meeting completely as equals at the very end of the show.

“They like each other and depend on each other and of course everybody has an idea of how romantic the relationship might be.”

My Fair Lady is at the Lyceum Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday.