Sid Langley previews a super new version of one of the great musicals...
I've just met the gorgeous young actress who's getting her chance of stardom by playing Eliza Doolittle in a new super-duper production of My Fair Lady. Lovely woman, great voice, 1000-watt smile and I'm sure she's going to be a big hit.
I've just met the gorgeous young actress who's getting her chance of stardom by playing Eliza Doolittle in a new super-duper production of My Fair Lady. Lovely woman, great voice, 1000-watt smile and I'm sure she's going to be a big hit as well.
Yes, that's right. There are two of them taking the part.
This production is a Cameron Macintosh version of the one which was such a huge hit at the National Theatre and which whipped up a bit of a tabloid storm. Ex-EastEnder Martine McCutcheon ("she was very good, you know," Cameron tells me) was in the headlines when she missed several shows through illness and was eventually replaced.
Cameron (he wears his knighthood very lightly) is quick to settle my first and obvious question - is having two Elizas an insurance policy?
"It's just a very lucky chance," he says. "There are lots of performers who could do the songs and the dances, but it's a real acting part and you need someone who has in them this special quality, this instinct to be a natural lady. It's hard to find one Eliza who has this quality. To find two is wonderful for us."
The two actresses are Amy Hutton, known fairly widely for her time in Emmerdale, and Lisa O'Hare, a fast-rising West End name who has understudied major musical theatre roles and has had a spell as Mary Poppins.
They have different backgrounds. Amy is very much a singer, Lisa a dancer, with full-blown ballet training. Both seem ideal for the role, judging by a special performance staged by key cast members on the stage at Manchester's Palace Theatre.
The audience was front of house staff from theatres around the country which will be receiving the show after its Manchester opening and from booking agencies plus a very select band of key media figures - and me.
The idea was to meet the stars and encourage the bookers to sell it as hard as possible. "It's a great show and we hope you sell us loads of tickets," Cameron unashamedly told the audience of 100 or so packed on to the stage with sections of unassembled scenery around us.
"When Amy signed for the part she had a previous contractual obligation over her new album. It's out in November and she was signed to do promotional work on it," Cameron told me. "So when we were able to sign Lisa as well it solved a problem."
Both actresses are delighted.
"It's the first chance for both of us to be genuine leading ladies, to carry a show," Lisa tells me.
As they sit shoulder to shoulder they chat away brightly, finishing each other's sentences, flashing smiles at me and each other that Colgate's marketing department would die for.
The body language doesn't lie. They clearly like each other, which must make the intensive preparation work that much easier.
"Oh yes," says Amy, "it's a great cast and everyone gets on really well."
Rex Harrison has forever stamped his persona on the role of Professor Higgins (writers Lerner and Loewe shaped his songs specially so he could "say" the words because he couldn't sing). He was also famously grumpy and difficult to get on with.
This show's Higgins is Christopher Cazenove.
When I ask how they're getting on with their professor, both Elizas almost shout at me, in chorus: "Chris is such a nice man." Actually, those of us at the Manchester preview were very lucky indeed to hear both Elizas doing a couple of duet versions of their famous numbers - and to witness some outrageous adlibs (and spoon playing) from Russ Abbott, who plays Eliza's dad.
Cameron told me: "There's a bit of a surprise in store in one scene," when I mentioned Russ's background as a drummer, but wouldn't be drawn further.
Christopher Cazenove is, indeed, a very nice man, and he, too, feels he's landed on his feet with Higgins. "It's a part I've coveted for ages," he told me. Ironically, Christopher made his West End debut in a play starring Rex Harrison, and he is quick to acknowledge that Higgins will always be associated with Harrison.
"It's a part he created and it was created for him, after all," said Christopher, sipping yet another cup of black coffee - his current stimulant of choice.
"When I got this job, with the long tour stretching ahead and the fact that there are pages and pages of lines, I thought I really had to make a serious effort to look after myself a bit," he said.
This is a point every cast member made to me, by the way.
In Christopher's case it was giving up smoking --permanently, he hopes after several on-off efforts. For such an experienced practitioner in popular theatre, it's hard to believe this is only his second musical - he was the Sound of Music paterfamilias.
Cameron told me: " Christopher projects a definite manliness about him, which should bring a deeper dimension to the professor."
He is keen to stress the quality of acting in this version of the show. "Freddie is obviously a twit but Stephen Carlile is so good he is able to make you sympathise with the pain of the character."
He is, incidentally, my tip to be the surprise hit of the show, judging by what I saw of him in Manchester.
My Fair Lady - "quite clearly the greatest musical of all time" as Russ Abbott told me - is at Birmingham Hippodrome from November 9 until December 3 after its premiere in Manchester the week before.
My considered professional opinion of this production? It's going to be luvverly.