Perhaps one’s first reaction to the prospect of seeing a production of Pygmalion might be slightly jaded. That old play? My Fair Lady without the songs? Does it have any relevance today? Haven’t I seen it many times before? Those were among my sneaking suspicions before curtain up last Saturday afternoon. But this is a fresh, funny and very relevant production, born at the Theatre Royal Bath, that charmed and chuckled its way through two and half hours of 100 year old comedy, and Mrs Chrisparkle and I both loved it.
You know the plot– Colonel Pickering bets that Professor Higgins can’t transform flower girl Eliza Doolittle from little cockney sparrer to eloquent beauty, the test being that no one suspects her true origins and identity at the ambassador’s garden party. Higgins works hard, Eliza works hard; he wins the bet, but only congratulates himself (and Pickering of course) on his own amazingness rather than recognising Eliza’s contribution and self-improvement; believing that he thinks nothing of her, she leaves. It doesn’t sound like that much of a story put that way. But Shaw created some fantastic characters, not only in Higgins and Eliza, but also Eliza’s dustman dad, and the sympathetic and extremely wise Mrs Higgins. The interplay between these characters still sparks off terrific comedy as well as thoughtful, emotional drama.
For instance, Act Three, where Higgins and Pickering take Eliza to one of Mrs H’s “At Home”s, still has your toes tingling with its examination of class distinction and seemingly inappropriate behaviour. Although the word “bloody” no longer has the impact it did in 1912, you still get a frisson of naughtiness when Eliza exits with it triumphantly on her lips. The whole “Gin was Mother’s milk to her” and “what I say is, them that pinched it done her in” sequence is so beautifully constructed to juxtapose perfect enunciation with gutter language that its enormous powers to surprise and delight remain undiminished. I can still remember the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle reciting this speech word perfect, such was its notoriety early in the 20th century. This scene is performed beautifully, and had the audience in hysterics. Very charmingly, during a short pause in this scene, you could hear a young child in the audience – who had been very well behaved to that point – unable to contain herself as she laughed out loud “this is SO funny!” The rest of the audience laughed back in appreciation. It was a great reminder that these famous and regularly performed plays are always new to someone.
Casting Alistair McGowan as Henry Higgins is a stroke of genius. When I think of Higgins I think of Rex Harrison and then maybe some other younger versions of the same characterisation. But Mr McGowan is unmistakably Mr McGowan; and although he doesn’t stray into the impersonation field, it does mean he puts on some very good cockney voices when he’s throwing back people’s words at them, as he annotates their speech patterns at Covent Garden in the rain. It becomes a slightly “in-joke” – everyone knows he’s Alistair McGowan, renowned for his funny voices, and there he is doing them, but it’s all part of the play. But it’s not only the voices that impress, it’s his mannerisms and bearing. I’ve always thought of him as being a bit of a scruffy urchin, with a very bendy physicality to him which allows him to impersonate others so well. Here he uses that informality to great effect, coming across much more as an errant schoolboy than as an esteemed professor. When he’s under pressure, he hops from side to side, jiggles his hands in his pockets, can’t make eye contact with his mum – most unlike Rex Harrison. It’s a very different reading of the role from the norm – and it works really well.
Rachel Barry is a very fine Eliza, both as flower girl standing up to the toffs, and as heartbroken lady dealing with the fall-out of the wretched professor’s bet. Her comic timing is immaculate in the “At Home” scene, and her resilience at the end, when faced with her understanding of the truth, is admirable. Jamie Foreman steals every scene he is in as Doolittle, his huge cockney brashness wheedling to get some cash out of Higgins as he tries to “sell” Eliza, and then dismally accepting his new found richesse, which sees him ascend into the grand surroundings of Mrs Higgins’ drawing room. Rula Lenska gives a dignified, but twinkling-in-the-eye performance as Mrs H, accepting no nonsense from her disappointing son but trying to carry on with the established behaviour expected of her. There’s also excellent support from Charlotte Page as the rather scary but essentially kind Mrs Pearce, Anna O’Grady as the somewhat petulant but very modern Clara, Jane Lambert as a rather tragic Mrs Eynsford-Hill, confessing her relative poverty with embarrassment whilst still keeping up appearances with the trappings of wealth, and Lewis Collier as a splendidly nincompoop Freddy, laughing at anything and everything.
David Grindley’s straightforward production allows Shaw’s text to do all the talking and proves that it still has a lot to say about class and relationships. Lots of fun, and definitely worth catching, if you can get to Canterbury this week, with Plymouth and Norwich still to come.