Dixie McDevitt

There’s a growing list of classic musicals going out of fashion, not because the music isn’t wonderful, or because the characters aren’t perfectly formed, but because of the casually problematic content that is impossible to cut due to rights issues. My Fair Lady is an interesting example, because while it sometimes cashes in on feminist triumphs, these come with some wildly antiquated assumptions – the question then becomes how to stage the show in today’s social context. Emma Howlett, our fabulous director, has taken the path of illuminating the good, and making fun of the iffy. During the rehearsal period in which we constantly went back to and debated over the text, it became clear that a lot of what was problematic about My Fair Lady lies in how the script is interpreted. We have had to really think about the abuse and mistreatment that was all but trivialised in the original production and decide how to treat it. Similarly, we have questioned assumptions about casting and the old-school male monopoly on comedic roles. Colonel Pickering, the buffeting blokey friend of Professor Henry Higgins, is being played by the marvellously talented Sophie Kean, and watching her make the role her own has been one of the most exciting parts of the process!

Dixie McDevitt

There has also been enormous fun in eking out comedy in areas that aren’t normally played in a humorous way, which has only been possible because this show is essentially made up of one big ensemble, out of which all the characters emerge from and return to. There is a great sense of joy in the ensemble taking on roles both lengthy and brief and making parts like Footman as memorable as any ‘main’ part – and the connection this creates is palpable among the company, who are one of the most supportive I’ve ever worked with.

“We have questioned assumptions about casting and the old-school male monopoly on comedic roles.”

That brings in me, the Assistant Director, who has been on the scene watching this whole fascinating endeavour from day one – pitching in, helping sew a horse head, working on puppetry with the company (you’ll see why!) – it really has been such an oasis of collaborative, creative glee that I haven’t once begrudged the many many hours of work that have gone in. Emma’s style of direction is exactly what I hoped to find here at Cambridge: daring, engaging and always giving the actor space to inject their own brilliance into any given moment. She retches at the mention of ‘blocking’ and good luck to anyone breathing such heinous words as ‘choreography’! Her aim is to make live theatre; ‘live’ in the sense that it is alive at all times, that actors are making decisions every night, that no two shows are the same. This focus on both spontaneity and tight-knit, ensemble-based physical theatre is one that is not normally applied to musical theatre – especially not to classic musical theatre from the days of Audrey Hepburn and Julie Andrews, which is a shame because, in my (albeit biased) opinion, the result is charming, exciting and exceedingly funny.

Dixie McDevitt

Our rehearsal room is one where the unexpected happens, and while many pivotal suggestions and ideas have come from all the members of cast (and very occasionally from me). This is only possible because of the rehearsal environment set up by Emma, in which anyone feels comfortable speaking up. I am very grateful to have been involved in such a unique and charismatic show, and hope that you see how much fun the cast are having onstage and share in it wholeheartedly! It is a show that truly stands by the saying “there are no small parts, only small actors”.

My Fair Lady is playing at the ADC Theatre from 4th to 8th February.

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