Alex Jennings Steps Back into Professor Higgins’ Tweeds

AJ photo 2015

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

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Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15

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Heather Mitchell and Josh McConville. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Noel Coward wrote Hay Fever when he was just 24 but already a star in the making. A comedy of gleefully bad manners, it was a huge hit when it premiered in 1925 despite lukewarm reviews and is still much performed.

Coward’s plays are deceptively difficult to do well. If the actors only give us superficial flamboyance and witticisms, the humour can all too easily fall flat. But Imara Savage has directed a fabulously funny production for Sydney Theatre Company that has a fresh edge and contemporary energy while still retaining a feel of the period.

The play is set in the household of the eccentric Bliss family. Judith Bliss (Heather Mitchell) is retired actress, determined to keep performing even if she no longer has a stage. Her husband David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) is a novelist and their grown-up children Sorrel (Harriet Dyer) and Simon (Tom Conroy) still live at home, without appearing to work.

All four invite a guest for the weekend without telling each other, thrusting them into a maelstrom of games and idiosyncratic carry-on that leaves their visitors reeling.

Essentially a lightweight comedy, Hay Fever offers the audience a vicarious thrill in experiencing life with such wayward “artistic” types. But it also celebrates bohemian freedom and vitality, and contrasts that with the rather stuffy, conservative mores of “ordinary” people and their concerns about sex and class.

Alicia Clements’ wonderful design isn’t period specific but subtly combines elements from the 1920s with later decades, setting the action in an attractively ramshackle conservatory full of greenery and eccentric touches like a bathtub for a sofa. Only the inclusion of wheelie suitcases and the decision to have Judith lip synch to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black when she offers to sing at the piano sit a little oddly.

Clements’ costumes are also terrific with all the Blisses in a permanent state of semi-undress or dressing gowns and the outfits of the other characters speaking reams about their personalities from the anxious Jackie’s girly cotton frocks and Alice band to the vampy Myra’s stylish couture.

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Heather Mitchell, Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy, Harriet Dyer and Tony Llewellyn-Jones. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Savage’s excellent cast combines wit with truth. Towards the end of the play, some of the performing becomes broadly comic and more farcical but overall the characters all feel very real.

Mitchell is sensational as Judith, a whirling dervish at the heart of the play. Her comic timing is immaculate and she is gloriously funny as she tears up the stage. Llewellyn-Jones is distinguished yet grouchy as the rather self-absorbed David. Dyer plays Sorrel with a contemporary edge as a young woman testing who she is, while Conroy’s Simon affects a nonchalant flamboyance.

Helen Thomson as the chic, sardonic Myra, Alan Dukes as the proper “diplomatist” Richard, Josh McConville as the rather gung-ho sportsman Sandy, and Briallen Clarke as the mousey, nervous Jackie are the perfect foil as the beleaguered guests. Genevieve Lemon is also very funny in a broadly comic portrayal of the exasperated housekeeper.

The Bliss family can become rather unlikeable in productions but Savage avoids that, ensuring that their love for each other comes across as strongly as their hilariously appalling behaviour.

Hay Fever plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 21. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

Henry 4 review

Henry 4 review

Bell Shakespeare Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

John Bell’s DNA is all over Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Henry 4. He co-directs with Damien Ryan, using the adaptation he did for the company in 1998 with a few small revisions, on top of which he turns in a marvellous performance as Falstaff.

Distilling Shakespeare’s two plays Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 into one play, Bell removes a lot of the politics and sub-plots to focus on the triangular relationship between Henry IV and his dissipated son Prince Hal, and between Hal and his surrogate father Falstaff, the old reprobate who is leading him astray.

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Arky Michael, Yalin Ozucelik, Matthew Moore, John Bell, Terry Bader, Wendy Strehlow. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The contemporary production is staged on Stephen Curtis’ gritty, industrial set with a shipping container, jukebox and a wall of milk crates, which is partially destroyed in a riotous prelude to the play.

The colourful, streetwise vibe is reflected in the costumes (jeans, beanies and hoodies for the characters in the tavern scenes; suits for the court) along with other touches like tasers, prissy German tourists, a hapless football team, a bike courier and a mad Scotsman whose aggressive drum playing is reminiscent of Animal in The Muppets. Some of these feel like a bit of a cheap laugh but had the audience chortling delightedly.

The score meanwhile includes Queen’s We Are the Champions and London’s Calling by The Clash.

The production is robustly physical, snappily paced and very clear in its storytelling even if the musicality of the language suffers a little now and then. The comic scenes featuring Falstaff and his motley, lowlife crew are more successful than the serious scenes at court and on the battlefield, though David Whitney is in commanding form as the fiercely sharp-tempered Henry IV, who is all too aware of his fragile hold on the crown. His portrayal of the King’s descent into illness is also beautifully judged.

Bell’s Falstaff is a joy. Sporting a fat suit, ruddy cheeks and straggly, grey hair, and dressed as an aging bikie, he revels in the portly knight’s drunken vulgarity, masterfully delivering his slippery wit in a hilarious performance that also has its moments of poignancy.

Hal is not a particularly likeable character but Matthew Moore manages to make him relatively sympathetic. However, his delivery of the language is a little one-note, which works against Hal’s transformation to heroic prince.

Among a solid ensemble Sean O’Shea is extremely funny as Justice Shallow, playing him as a doddery harry high pants, and Tony Llewellyn-Jones is a wonderfully suave Westmoreland.

All in all, Henry 4 is a very entertaining version of Shakespeare’s history plays.

Ends May 26.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 28.