You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Hayes Theatre Co, July 6

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Sheridan Harbridge, Laura Murphy, Mike Whalley, Andy Dexterity, Nat Jobe and Ben Gerrard. Photo: Noni Carroll

First staged off-Broadway in 1967, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is based on Charles M. Schulz’s legendary, long-running comic strip Peanuts with its group of anxious children and their beagle Snoopy, whose imaginary life includes being a World War I flying ace.

The musical comedy charts a day in the life of Charlie Brown told through a series of vignettes with catchy songs by Clark Gesner and Andrew Lippa (brought to perky life by musical director Michael Tyack and his four-piece band).

In keeping with the simplicity of Schulz’s drawings, Georgia Hopkins has designed a minimal set consisting of several drapes and a few set pieces including Schroeder’s piano, Snoopy’s kennel and a bench, while her costumes are instantly recognisable. Hugh Hamilton’s lighting brings plenty of colour to the simple staging.

Deftly directed by Shaun Rennie, the production boasts a cast of gifted comic actors who capture the wry, bittersweet humour of the piece so that it is charming but not too cutesy.

Interestingly, the York Theater Company experimented with a production, that ran off-Broadway in June, featuring relatively young children who had professional stage experience, some of them on Broadway. It led the New York Times to conclude that “this is a more demanding musical than you might remember” and that “there is a fair amount of complexity in these seemingly simple characters, which is why Charlie Brown is best when performed by adults, or at least by high school students.”

The adults in this Hayes Theatre Co production certainly find the emotional nuances in the characters.

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Sheridan Harbridge and Mike Whalley. Photo: Noni Carroll

At the heart of the show, Mike Whalley may not have the strongest singing voice but he is endearing as the lovable loser Charlie Brown. At times you want to hug him but his Charlie is no sad sack. Along with his loneliness and awkwardness, Whalley conveys Charlie’s resilient hope and droll self-awareness.

Sheridan Harbridge is hilarious as the forceful, super-crabby Lucy. Laura Murphy brings just the right heightened energy to Charlie’s indignant, stroppy younger sister Sally and her song My New Philosophy is a musical highlight.

Ben Gerrard as the smart, lisping, blanket-carrying Linus and Nat Jobe as the Beethoven-loving Schroeder are also spot on. Andy Dexterity (who does a terrific job as choreographer) stepped in late as Snoopy and does a commendable job though he still has more to find in his two big numbers.

Unfolding in a similar vein throughout, there are no great dramatic surprises but the musical is funny and gently touching. Children will find it accessible but the stronger appeal is the sense of nostalgia for adults looking back on childhood.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until July 30. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 9

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Singin’ in the Rain

Lyric Theatre, July 9

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Grant Almirall as Don Lockwood singin’ and dancin’ in the rain. Photo: Hagen Hopkins.

Based on the beloved 1952 MGM movie, this production of the musical Singin’ in the Rain is largely faithful to the film. You get what you expect but without the excitement of a truly inventive, reimagined staging.

However, there’s no denying the thrill of the joyous, splashy Singin’ in the Rain sequences at the end of Act I and the finale, which take place in heavy showers (12,000 litres of water apparently), dousing people in the front few rows of the stalls (ponchos provided) and sending the audience out on a high.

Directed by Jonathan Church, who left Sydney Theatre Company in May just months after being appointed artistic director, the production originated at the UK’s Chichester Festival in 2011 then transferred to the West End.

Act I is slow to fire. Apparently Church was given little freedom to rework the original screenplay. Simon Higlett’s set is also partly to blame. Set in Hollywood in the late 1920s as the talkies were about to revolutionise the industry, it’s a clever idea to set the show on a Hollywood soundstage. However, the grey walls make for a drab setting that frequently leeches energy despite coloured back lighting (Tim Mitchell) and attractive costuming. It’s not such an issue in Act II where rainbow hues and illuminated signs brighten the stage for the Broadway Ballet.

The black and white footage of the talkie that they are making, shown on a giant screen, is brilliantly done and extremely funny (video design by Ian William Galloway).

Andrew Wright had more leeway to change the choreography, which is always lively and sometimes thrilling as in the tap routines for Moses Supposes and Good Morning, though we miss some of the famous tricks (like the backflip off the wall) in Make ‘Em Laugh.

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Gretel Scarlett, Jack Chambers and Grant Almirall in Good Morning. Photo: Lindsay Kearney

The iconic pas de deux between Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly in the film has been replaced by the girl (a wonderful Nadia Coote with gorgeous leg extensions) partnered by the male ensemble and is beautifully danced (the ensemble dancing is sharp throughout) though it doesn’t have quite the same impact as that gorgeous, sexy duet.

Replacing the injured Adam Garcia as Hollywood heartthrob Don Lockwood, South African performer Grant Almirall is a strong dancer, sings well and understands the period style but he doesn’t exude huge charisma.

As aspiring actor and Don’s love interest, Kathy Selden, Gretel Scarlett dances up a storm, sings sweetly and conveys a warm sincerity in a winning performance. Erika Heynatz is a hoot as Don’s shrill, manipulative co-star Lina Lamont. She does a great job of sustaining Lina’s screechy voice and strangled accent, while the scene in which she tries to act in her first talkie is a comic highlight.

As Don’s sidekick Cosmo Brown, the elastic-limbed Jack Chambers dances superbly and lands the cheesy, vaudevillian shtick, while Rodney Dobson has just the right comic energy as film director Roscoe Dexter.

The 14-piece band, perched high above the stage, is impressive under musical director Adrian Kirk.

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Rodney Dobson and Erika Heynatz. Photo: Jeff Busby

Overall, it’s a polished production with plenty to enjoy. But apart from the stunning rain routines, it just lacks that special something that makes a good production great.

Singin’ in the Rain plays at the Lyric Theatre until September 4. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 10

Todd McKenney: What a Life!

Todd McKenney pr image May 2015

Todd McKenney. Photo: supplied

Todd McKenney is not one to sit around waiting for work. If he’s not in a musical or on television, he produces things for himself. And with three stage shows on the go, he is becoming quite the entrepreneur.

“I’ve got a big mortgage, I have to,” he says with a big laugh.

“That’s the problem with buying a big house, it comes with a big mortgage. It does motivate me to keep getting out there but I am also single. I’ve got my dogs and I’ve got my career. I don’t have a partner. I don’t have any real distractions. If I’m not (working) I’m just sitting at home. And I love (performing) so why not do it?

“I do think it’s a double edged thing,” he adds. “Because I work so much I don’t get out to meet people but then if I had a partner I don’t think I’d work as much – so I don’t know if I really want one or not. It’s a cliché but I’m pretty much married to my work.”

McKenney’s latest show What a Life! premieres at Glen Street Theatre in Belrose on July 7 and then tours to Dapto, Campbelltown, Bankstown and Rooty Hill, with performances in Melbourne at the end of the year.

Although it celebrates his 30 years in showbiz, McKenney says that it won’t be a chronological survey of his career. “I don’t want it to be a musical theatre show. I want it to be artists and music from whatever genre that have influenced me growing up. Every single song has had a big impact on me,” he says.

“It’s a really mixed bag of material. There’s some Peter Allen, of course, but not much of it. There is everything from The Andrews Sisters to Bette Midler, Tom Jones, Prince – all the music that I grew up with – and a medley from Cabaret so it’s musical theatre meets pop meets nostalgia meets Peter Allen.”

The former hoofer has decided to dust off his tap shoes for a rendition of I Got Rhythm to end Act I. “I put them on and clopped around my lounge room making sure my feet still know what to do – and they did.  My dogs were looking at me thinking, ‘what the heck?’ But that was when I got the biggest wave of nostalgia. I haven’t choreographed tap dancing for myself in 25 years,” he says.

The show will end with a Peter Allen mega-medley. “I think I’d by lynched if I didn’t do Peter Allen. But I want to try and do slightly different arrangements of things and some songs that aren’t in the Peter Allen show,” he says.

His other shows include the popular Todd McKenney Sings Peter Allen, performed with his band and backing vocalists (which arrives at Penrith Panthers on July 1 and Mittagong RSL on July 2) and The Piano Sessions, a more intimate show touring regional NSW from September, which he describes as a cross-between the Peter Allen show and What a Life!

In September, McKenney also plans to launch a series of Sunday afternoon “in conversations” at the Ensemble Theatre where he is patron, at which he will interview a musical theatre performer and intersperse their chat with songs.

As he says: “I’m not short of an idea!”

What a Life! plays at Glen St Theatre, Belrose, July 7 – 9. Bookings: 02 9975 1455. Touring details: www.toddmckenney.com.au

 A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 26

Virginia Gay Cracks the Whip as Calamity Jane

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Virginia Gay will play Calamity Jane. Photo: Sam Ruttyn

As revealed in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, Virginia Gay is to play Calamity Jane for Neglected Musicals in August

Blown away by Virginia Gay’s portrayal of photographer Liz Imbrie in High Society at the Hayes Theatre Co last year, Michelle Guthrie immediately set about looking for a starring vehicle for the popular performer.

Guthrie, who produces Neglected Musicals, settled on the 1961 musical Calamity Jane, which was adapted from the much-loved 1953 Warner Bros movie written for Doris Day.

“Virginia absolutely stole the show in High Society in my opinion, which is why I wanted to find something where it’s OK for her to steal the show. Calamity is barely off stage. It’s perfect for her. She gets all the big songs and a lot of gags – and her comic timing is impeccable,” says Guthrie.

Neglected Musicals will present Calamity Jane in August as part of the Hayes Theatre Co’s season for the second half of 2016.

Best known for her TV roles in Network Seven’s Winners & Losers and All Saints, Gay (who graduated from the WAAPA acting course) is also a gifted musical theatre performer as she showed with consummate performances in High Society and Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town for Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Squabbalogic at the Sydney Opera House last month.

With season five of Winners & Losers shot and ready to screen later this year, Gay is enjoying taking advantage of the hiatus in her TV schedule to flex her musical theatre muscle on short-run productions like Wonderful Town and now Calamity Jane.

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Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox in High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Gay says she watched the film of Calamity Jane “obsessively” as a child. “I had a series of films I watched over and over again, which was kind of like a cheap babysitting for my parents because they would put it on and I wouldn’t move – and Calamity Jane was one of them,” she says.

The whip-cracking, gun-toting, buckskin-clad character is inspired by a real American frontierswoman called Martha Jane Canary, nicknamed Calamity Jane.

Set in Deadwood City, where Calamity can outride and outshoot everyone except Wild Bill Hickok, the show tells a fictional story involving comic confusion, jealousy and love. The terrific score includes famous songs such Windy City, Secret Love, The Black Hills of Dakota and The Deadwood Stage (Whip-Crack-Away!).

“I used to love it growing up because she’s an independent woman. She’s iconoclastic and transgressive and powerful and funny,” says Gay.

“I like the fact that (wearing men’s clothes) is her way of surviving on the frontier in the Wild West. What an amazing choice. I really love her. It no doubt started a lifelong love of funny outsiders; they are my favourite role in any show.”

Neglected Musicals presents minimally staged readings of rarely seen shows – Calamity Jane has only ever had amateur productions in Australia – performed by a top cast with script in hand after just a day or two’s rehearsal.

“After 10 years of television, I love working quick. One day (to rehearse) is psychotic but that’s great,” says Gay.

“I think the audience feels like they are in on something special. You never normally get to see something like this. It’s like being in the rehearsal room. It’s so intimate and so full of glorious mistakes. It’s like we are all in this together and it’s delightful.”

Calamity Jane plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, August 3 – 6. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 5

Robyn Nevin – from All My Sons to My Fair Lady

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Robyn Nevin co-stars with John Howard in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons for Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: James Green

From one of the great tragedies of 20th century theatre to one of the most perfect musicals ever written, Robyn Nevin will be running the emotional gamut in her next two productions.

A grande dame of Australian theatre, Nevin is currently at Sydney Theatre Company rehearsing Arthur Miller’s powerful classic All My Sons, which begins previewing on Saturday.

She then moves straight onto My Fair Lady, directed by Julie Andrews for Opera Australia and John Frost – which will doubtless be a tonic after the emotional toll of All My Sons.

“The play is a beautifully constructed tragedy, the playing out of which leaves us as actors pretty shattered,” admits Nevin.

“But there is also inspiration and deep satisfaction. Giving the work of a great writer to a different audience at each performance, and giving everything, is what sustains me.”

All My Sons is set in 1946 in the backyard of the Keller family. They appear to be a fine example of the American dream. Patriarch Joe Keller is a successful manufacturer, while his wife Kate keeps house. But there is something rotten at the heart of the family.

Kate clings to the hope that their son Larry, missing in action for three years, will return home. When their other son Chris arrives saying he wants to marry Larry’s girlfriend Ann Deever, a tragic series of revelations and events is set in motion.

“The play is basically about denial and secrets and how that corrodes individuals and families,” says Nevin who plays Kate to John Howard’s Joe.

“(Miller) wrote it as a 30-year old man and it was only his second play. They are clearly themes he felt very deeply about and it must have been very raw at the time, after the Second World War – but you know we’re always at war, it seems, and we are always losing soldiers and losing loved ones. Australia has been amazingly fortunate that we haven’t been at war on (home) land and we haven’t had a civil war but still (war) has taken its toll,” says Nevin.

“There’s so much more emphasis now on returned soldiers and the devastation that’s caused (in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder) to all who serve. That’s only just touched on in the play because it wasn’t examined in those days. But it is a presence in the play because one son has come back from the war and is embittered about his own country because of the fact that – as happened after the Vietnam War – the soldiers who returned were almost ignored as if nothing had changed in the world that they came back to. People didn’t understand the level of their devastation at all.”

Nevin describes Miller’s writing as “so strong, very simple and beautifully structured with wonderful rhythms. They are so authentic. You feel very supported by the structure of the play and the storytelling and the power of the plot. The characters are so beautifully written and so distinct from each other. It’s terrific to do a play like that because you can kind of sink into it. It stretches you and it forces you to work to your fullest, to exercise the muscle, but it’s also very supportive.”

The production is directed by Kip Williams, who directed Nevin in last year’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, staged with a huge video screen showing both live and pre-recorded footage.

“Kip and I had an odd time on Suddenly Last Summer because he was really directing for cameras so I feel this is like a new experience. I don’t feel that we worked so closely before. He’s the politest, sweetest man,” she says.

The chance to perform opposite John Howard was a big drawcard. “I haven’t worked with John for such a long time,” says Nevin. “He’s terrific: such a powerful presence on stage. It’s fabulous. The last time he worked here (at STC) was when I directed him in (Tony McNamara’s 2000 play) The Recruit. I also directed him in The Philadelphia Story (in 1986). I’ve known John since he first got out of NIDA and it’s great to have him back at Sydney Theatre Company.”

Nevin says that these days she has to be “much more wary than in earlier decades” when tackling such emotionally devastating material.

“I used to automatically plunge in. Now I’m much more careful about myself. I still have to plunge in. I have to go there. I have to feel what the character feels and imagine what the character is going through. I do that to the nth degree and that does take its toll. That means I have to be even more careful about myself and my mental, emotional and physical health,” she says.

When she’s not working, Nevin and her partner actor/writer Nicholas Hammond (who played Friedrich in the film of The Sound of Music) spend time in the Southern Highlands, south of Sydney.

“My life is very simple. I go out very rarely. We go to the country and that is an oasis of peace and calm and nature. We’ve got sheep. It’s very restorative,” she says.

In My Fair Lady, Nevin will play Mrs Higgins, society mother of Professor Henry Higgins – a prospect that clearly excites her enormously.

“I think it’s going to be wonderful,” she says citing the “beauty, scale and richness of the music and those wonderful lyrics that make  you weep with joy, they are so witty.

“I always wanted to be able to sing so to be inside that musical beauty will be very thrilling, actually,” she says. “My character doesn’t come on for ages until the Ascot scene so I’ll be able to hear them singing when I’m in the dressing room. Imagine that thrill. I’ll be like a groupie!”

Nevin is also excited about working with Julie Andrews and says they have had “a lively conversation” about the musical.

“I’ve met her before with Nicholas but not in a way that enabled a one-on-one conversation. We talked about the piece, we talked about Shaw (on whose play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady is based) because I have directed Shaw. We talked about the musicality of it and the issues. She’s completely charming, of course,” says Nevin.

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the original Broadway production, as well as OA’s 60th birthday, Andrews is recreating the 1956 production in which she co-starred opposite Rex Harrison, playing cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle – the role that catapulted her to international stardom.

Oliver Smith’s set design and Cecil Beaton’s costumes will be recreated, with new choreography from Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli.

“I think she’s got an excellent team lined up and the designs and costumes are just extraordinary. I don’t agree with some commentary I read the other day about it being an old-fashioned museum piece and why would you want to resurrect that old production?” says Nevin.

“Well, it’s because it’s exquisite and true to itself. It has its own integrity and a lot of people will appreciate that. I think it will be a winner.”

All My Sons, Roslyn Packer Theatre until July 9. Bookings: 02 9250 1777 or www.sydneytheatre.com.au. My Fair Lady, Sydney Opera House, August 30 – November 5. Bookings: 02 9250 7777 or www.sydneyoperahouse.com

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 29

Xanadu The Musical

Hayes Theatre Co, May 17

Jaime Hadwen and Ainsley Melham in XANADU (c) Frank Farrugia

Jaime Hadwen and Ainsley Melham as Kira and Sonny. Photo: Frank Farrugia

The 1980 film Xanadu starring a roller-skating Olivia Newton-John was a famous flop, so outrageously bad that it became a cult classic.

Gleefully spoofing the movie, Xanadu the Musical proved to be a ditzy delight when it premiered on Broadway in 2007. Unfortunately, this heavy-handed production directed and choreographed by Nathan M. Wright for Matthew Management in association with the Hayes Theatre Co steamrollers the heart and much of the comedy out of the sweetly silly show.

Set in 1980, Sonny is a depressed, creatively blocked street artist with more muscles than brain. Clio, a beautiful Greek muse and daughter of Zeus, descends from Mount Olympus to Venice Beach to save him. Donning leg-warmers, roller skates and an Australian accent, she calls herself Kira and inspires him to reach for the stars – or at least open a roller disco.

Meanwhile, two of Clio’s jealous sisters try to trick her, hoping she will incur Zeus’s wrath by falling in (forbidden) love with a mortal.

Writer Douglas Carter Beane has laced his wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, knowing script with jokes about 1980s culture and musicals. At one point, for example, Zeus observes that 1980 will be a cultural turning point: “Creativity shall remain stymied for decades. The theatre? They’ll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter’s catalogue, throw it onstage and call it a show.”

The score, featuring music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne from ELO and John Farrar, is just as much fun, full as it is of chart-topping hits such as Magic, Evil Woman, All Over the World, Suddenly and Xanadu.

Designers Nathan Weyers (set), James Browne (costumes) and Simon Johnson (lighting) have created just the right kind of camp, cheesy 80s look for the show with lashings of colour, glitz and humour from hilarious sirens sporting sparkly mermaid tails, who glide onto stage on wheelie boards, to a cute bicycle Pegasus.

Dion Bilios, James Maxfield, Jaime Hadwen, Ainsley Melham, Catty Hamilton, Kat Hoyos in XANADU (c) Frank Farrugia

Dion Biolos, James Maxfield, Jaime Hadwen, Ainsley Melham, Catty Hamilton and Kat Hoyos. Photo: Frank Farrugia

Wright’s lively, 80s-inspired choreography is also amusing, particularly the sequinned formations on skates at the end. His direction, however, lacks a lightness of touch. Everything is hammered out at the same relentless pace and volume, with the scenery-chewing cast dialling their performances up to 11. Some of the one-liners are thrown away, lost in motor-mouthed shouting. At other times, the humour is laboured. Either way, much of the comedy falls flat. The sound doesn’t help, with the volume on Andrew Bevis’s four-piece band cranked high.

As Kira and Sonny, Jaime Hadwen and Ainsley Melham both sing well but there’s little chemistry between them. In his first musical since leaving Hi-5, Melham’s comic timing is awry. Mugging in cartoony fashion, his blunt reading of the role diminishes the character’s goofy charm. Hadwen has a sweet presence though her strident Aussie accent dominates her portrayal.

The biggest laughs of the night come from Francine Cain and Jayde Westaby, both wonderful as Kira’s scheming sisters Calliope and and Melpomene.

Pitched right, Xanadu can be ridiculously funny. This production (which runs 90 minutes without interval) has its moments and sections of the audience clearly loved it, but I felt it pushes too hard and as a result never quite gets its skates on.

Xanadu the Musical plays at Hayes Theatre Co, Potts Point until June 12. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or Ticketmaster 1300 723 038

A version of this review ran online for Daily Telegraph Arts

Alex Jennings Steps Back into Professor Higgins’ Tweeds

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Alex Jennings. Photo: supplied

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