The leading British stage actor, whose credits include a stint on Downton Abbey, joins the cast of My Fair Lady.

Australian audiences will doubtless know him best as society editor and publisher Michael Gregson, lover of Lady Edith Crawley in Downton Abbey. Now British actor Charles Edwards is to play Professor Henry Higgins in the Brisbane and Melbourne seasons of My Fair Lady, producers Lyndon Terracini, Artistic Director of Opera Australia, and John Frost announced today.

Charles Edwards. Photo by Johan Persson

Edwards will replace fellow British actor Alex Jennings, who is currently starring as the misogynistic, curmudgeonly professor of phonetics in Sydney, where the show has won rave reviews.

The 60th anniversary production of Lerner and Loewe’s musical – which is based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion – is directed by Dame Julie Andrews, who played Eliza when the show opened on Broadway in 1956, and recreates Oliver Smith’s original sets and Cecil Beaton’s legendary costumes.

A leading man on the London stage, Edwards graduated from the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1992. His many theatre credits include a recent production of Harley Granville Barker’s Waste at the Royal National Theatre, the title role in Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe, Oberon to Judi Dench’s Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre, and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit in the West End and the US with Dame Angela Lansbury. When he played Bertie in the original stage play The King’s Speech in the West End in 2012, Michael Billington wrote in Guardian review: “Edwards, who has been edging towards stardom for several seasons, has now unequivocally arrived.” His many other credits include The 39 Steps in the West End and on Broadway, the new BBC series Sherlock, and the films Philomena, Diana, Batman Begins and An Ideal Husband.

Charles Edwards in Blithe Spirit

Asked about musicals, Edwards chuckles. “I did a musical called Mr Cinders at a little theatre in London called The King’s Head and that was probably in 1993 – so not for a while. We did a lot [musically] at college and I used to love it. I simply haven’t done one for a long time.”

The offer to play Higgins in Australia “came out of the blue”, he says. “From the moment I knew it was Julie directing, I thought this is too good not to do. And I’ve also hankered for a long time to play the role. I like acting in Shaw very much: the intellectual demands and the speed of thought, I find challenging. I think if you’re not careful Shaw can run away with you unless you’re on top of it and I enjoy that very much. But also the album with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, I used to listen to constantly. It was the original 1956 Broadway show. It was in my Dad’s record collection. It’s always spoken to me and I’m thrilled to finally be able to do it.”

In a 4.5 star review of the production for Limelight, Clive Paget said of Higgins: “Nowadays we would likely consider this misanthrope ‘on the spectrum.’”

“That strikes a chord and appeals to me,” says Edwards on hearing the comment. “He’s very much an outsider which is always very interesting but I do love the way he sums up society. He treats everybody the same – why should he treat a duchess any different to a flower girl? – and I like that very much about him.”

Edwards arrived in Australia today, having already spoken about the role with Dame Julie and Jennings, and will spend two weeks here seeing the production and getting to know the cast.

Next up, he will be seen playing the title role in a new three-part British sitcom called Henry IX by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Porridge, The Likely Lads), about a fictional future British royal family. He also features, with Jennings funnily enough, in a new television period drama series called The Halcyon set in a London hotel in the 1940s.

Asked if he will take singing lessons in the lead-up to My Fair Lady, he says: “It depends what’s asked of me.  I’ll meet with the Musical Director this week and see what they think. If they deem it necessary, of course I will. But I’m not remotely concerned about that. I think the demands of the role are the lucidity and the lyrics – which is true of all characters, but particularly one who is so involved with words. And as we all know the part is not traditionally hugely demanding as a singing role – and I know that is the way Julie is keen to keep it.”

My Fair Lady runs at the Sydney Opera House until November 5. It then plays at Brisbane’s Lyric Theatre, QPAC from March 12 (on sale October 31) and Melbourne’s Regent Theatre from May 11 (on sale October 10).


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