There is nothing like a Dame as British actor Alex Jennings knows, having performed opposite some of acting’s greatest. He co-starred with Maggie Smith in the recent film The Lady in the Van and in 2006 played Prince Charles to Helen Mirren’s monarch in The Queen.
Still, he admits he was nervous when he met Dame Julie Andrews to discuss her 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady for Opera Australia/John Frost in which he will play Professor Henry Higgins – a role he first played in the West End in 2002.
“We met in London. I had a very lovely hour with her over drinks and we chatted about the piece and about her experience in it and my experience in it. I was quite nervous and completely delighted by meeting her,” he says.
A classical actor with three Olivier Awards to his name, including one for My Fair Lady, Jennings has worked extensively at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre.
Though born in Essex, he frequently plays “posh” characters. In something of a royal flush, having previously portrayed Prince Charles, he now plays Prince Edward in Netflix’s new drama The Crown and is currently in Yorkshire filming a British television series about Queen Victoria in which he plays Leopold I, King of Belgium, uncle to both Victoria and Albert.
“Where would we be without our royal family?” he quips in his silky, sonorous voice.
Jennings is coming to Sydney in August to co-star in My Fair Lady with rising star Anna O’Byrne as Eliza Doolittle – the cockney flower-seller Higgins bets he can pass off as an aristocrat by teaching her to speak “proper”. The top-drawer Australian cast also includes Reg Livermore, Tony Llewellyn-Jones and Robyn Nevin.
Jennings was at the National working with Trevor Nunn on Vanbrugh’s Restoration comedy The Relapse in 2001 when Nunn asked if he’d like to take over from Jonathan Pryce as Higgins in his production of My Fair Lady, which was transferring to the West End.
“I’d never done a musical before and it was an extraordinary experience. I absolutely loved it,” says Jennings, who played the part for 11 months.
In 2014, he took over the role of Willie Wonka in the West End production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory The Musical directed by Sam Mendes and again relished the experience. Offered the chance to revisit Higgins in Australia, Jennings leapt at the chance.
“I’m really thrilled because it’s such a great musical and it’s such a great acting role as well as being a musical theatre role. It’s like playing Hamlet in a way, it’s inexhaustible really. So I’m thrilled to be having another go and slightly overwhelmed at the thought of working with Julie,” he says.
“And I’ve never been to Australia before so it’s a big treat,” he adds, saying that his wife, landscape gardener Lesley Moors, will come with him while their two children, now in their 20s, and his “dear, old Dad” will also visit.
Andrews is recreating the 1956 Broadway production in which she starred as Eliza opposite Rex Harrison.
“Even though the framework is going to be the same with the Cecil Beaton and Oliver Smith designs, there’s new choreography (by Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli) and I think there’s room for manoeuvring and putting one’s stamp on it,” says Jennings.
“And, listen, they were great designs. I’ve been told that tweed fabrics are being rewoven as we speak. I’m happy to be in Rex Harrison’s old suits.”
Jennings describes the curmudgeonly, misogynistic Higgins as “volatile” but says: “he’s doing something quite radical I think. He wants to turn things on their head and give people lower down the social ladder – specifically Eliza in this case – opportunities to shift in society.
“He wants to mess with the English class system, which is a good thing. He’s passionate, he has borderline behavioural problems, living on his own. His heart and head have never been messed with in the way they are when Eliza comes to the house.”
Now 59, Jennings thinks there will be differences in his portrayal to when he last played the role.
“Since I last did it my singing has grown. When I was doing Willie Wonka I worked with a brilliant singing teacher called Mary King and she has given me confidence and brought on my singing,” he says.
“And I’m older – though I’m not as old as Rex Harrison was when he finished doing it. But there is going to be a bigger age difference between me and Eliza than there was when I last did it so any sense of romance would perhaps be less appropriate.”
My Fair Lady plays at the Sydney Opera House from August 30 – November 5. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 9250 7777
A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 22