A tart-with-a-heart, a local likely lad, a cheeky middle-aged scouser and a posh figure of fun. Yep, they’re all present and correct in My Fairfield Lady, a bloody genius title and – when you think about it – a concept that makes perfect sense: A Scouse My Fair Lady; She’s All Tha-; Frigmalion.
Except, that doesn’t really describe My Fairfield Lady. Kevin Fearon’s adaptation cleverly inverts the urchin-turns-elegant dynamic of George Bernard Shaw’s play and contrives a situation where a hoity-toity Wirralite must pass muster as a “good Liverpool girl” – “gerrrl” might be more accurate.
Jessica Dyas plays flower-shop owner Lizzie Ripon – a Hoylake woman so plummy she’d be rejected by a Downton Abbey casting call for being too posh. She’s attempting a very awkward romance, not to mention business partnership, with local businessman Higson (Danny O’Brien), a man who likes the high life but loves his Ma even more.
But Lizzie’s business is struggling – and Higson’s parents are ailing. When his Mum Mary issues a deathbed ultimatum – marry or be disinherited, things seem to fall into place. Alas! Mary won’t accept anything but a salt-of-the-earth North-End Sort whose proper-scouse bones she can love.
Luckily co-worker Steph (a very game and willing Helen Carter) is the sort of scouser everyone has met – and probably never forgotten: perfect for teaching Lizzie how to drop her aitches, roll her hair and flatten her forehead. Throw in a short skirt and a pair of precipitous heels and the transformation is complete.
A scene where Steph uses the northern line timetable to show Lizzie how not to enunciate properly is touched by genius
A scene where Steph uses the northern line timetable (Ormskirrrrrkkkk…. Mag-hull?) to show Lizzie how not to enunciate properly is touched by genius; Dyas and Carter have deft comic touches and great chemistry. When the Royal Court stages another anniversary celebration this scene will be front and centre.
Unfortunately things hit a patch rougher than Steph when My Fairfield Lady delves into the bleak dual story of Mary and Alf (a typically funny turn from Michael Starke) and their illnesses. One is dying of cancer; the other fading into dementia.
Although worthy of exploration, these are fundamentally unfunny topics and My Fairfield Lady can’t support the see-sawing from broad, thigh-slapping comedy to tragic melodrama. You can see what Fearon and director Chris Mellor were aiming for, but the audience is unsure what to make of it – and who can blame them when faced with gags about an older, cancer-ravaged woman’s “crumbling bones”?
The Royal Court has noticeably moved towards a more grounded tone with My Fairfield Lady and Yellow Breck Road recently. Perhaps that plays against this production as the tonal shift required to move from laughs to tears are too jarring, too real here.
Nevertheless, My Fairfield Lady will always have served up one of the great Royal Court scenes and, as ever, the cast are bulletproof. It’s a real thrill to see such a clever set make full use of the revolving stage too, Olivia du Monceau’s design slotting together like a huge game of Tetris.
Despite a sort-of happy ending The Royal Court hasn’t quite got it with My Fairfield Lady, but there are loverly moments.
My Fairfield Lady
Until 25 May