Joanna Riding is used to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane — she co-starred there in The Witches of Eastwick before the show transferred to the Prince of Wales. Now she has taken over one of the best-known roles in musical theatre, that of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Theatrenow met her in her dressing room at Drury Lane.
Did you see Martine McCutcheon in the role of Eliza when this production started at the National? "No, unfortunately she wasn't on when I went to see it. Which was a stroke of luck, really, as it meant I could get a taste of the production without seeing how she played the role. It's always better to come to your own interpretation completely fresh."
How do you see Eliza? "Basically, she's a very strong character. When she goes on about being 'a good girl' in the opening scenes, it's not just some sort of comic relief, it's a statement. Being a flower-girl in those days was often a front for prostitution, and Eliza's determined not to go down that road, and proud of the fact she hasn't done, so 'I'm a good girl' is a very important statement to her."
The way she speaks, however, is very funny — the very broad cockney and then the exaggerated 'posh' at the Ascot scene. "I'm a Lancashire lass, and as an actress, the posh is as much an achievement as the cockney!" There's a very good chemistry between you and Alex Jennings as Henry Higgins. Obviously Eliza's relationship with him — both professional and emotional — is at the core of the show. Do you think this means Freddy doesn't get a look in? "Eliza would eat Freddy alive! He may be young and attractive in a boyish way, but he has no idea of what the real world's like. Eliza has grown up in a very tough world, and she's a very determined girl who's looking for an equal.
"That's how she sees Henry Higgins — when she goes to him it's to improve herself, to make her way up in the world, and she does it in a professional way. It's a comic scene, but it's a very serious one for her — she's prepared to pay the going rate, and as far as she's concerned, she's dealing with him as an equal.
"The same goes for relationships: Freddy may be attractive, but he's not her equal as a person. That's the irony. He may be her social 'superior,' but as a person, she's streets ahead of him, and there's no way she'd marry someone like him. She's looking for an equal partner."
You look very glamorous when dressed up for the ball scene. Is there a lot of backstage work involved with all the costume changes? "Yes! I wear six wigs and two corsets at various stages of the evening. There are some very quick changes, which rely on several people helping me at once, and the change has to be very choreographed for it to happen effectively and on time.
"The formal clothes look great but are odd to wear. Offstage I'm not a very 'girly' girl. I'm happy not to wear make-up, and these clothes are about as smart as I get [she's wearing crisp new jeans and a sweater]. I like to roar off on a motorbike, so it's nice to have the chance to ponce around in evening dress for a change!"
Drury Lane seemed a bit big for The Witches of Eastwick, but do you think it suits My Fair Lady better than the National? "I think Witches worked better at the Prince of Wales. It was a show about a small town, a rather claustrophobic environment, and being in a smaller theatre helped create that atmosphere.
"I think Drury Lane suits the show very well, and it's nice to have that historic connection, to know that it started here in the 1950's, that it sort of belongs here. We're a very happy cast, too, and I think that communicates itself to the audience, and although there are some well-known people in the cast, the real star is the show itself."
My Fair Lady, starring Joanna Riding (Eliza), Alex Jennings (Henry Higgins), Dennis Waterman (Alfred P Doolittle) and Malcolm Sinclair (Colonel Pickering) is playing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow