Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: David Grindley
Reviewer: Pete Benson
Pygmalion is probably the most famous play written by Nobel Prize winning playwright George Bernard Shaw. This much loved work reflects Shaw’s passionate dedication to social justice. The play of a linguistics professor’s wager that he can pass off a lowly flower seller as a lady is over a century old and yet still feels vibrant and contemporary. Many will know the musical film version, My Fair Lady, which could only be made after Shaw’s death: having had a bad experience with Arms and the Man being turned into a musical, albeit very successfully, he would not countenance further musical adaptations of his work, reflecting the highly principled man that he was.
This offering is a fine version of Shaw’s work. Alistair McGowan gives a masterful interpretation of Henry Higgins. This Higgins is no stoic, desiccated, stiff of a man as he is often portrayed; quite the opposite. He is ebullient, vivacious and totally appealing to the audience. McGowan imbues him with a dynamic physicality as he fidgets, slouches and steamrollers his way through the play. His performance comes from a solid central core of truth and McGowan seems utterly comfortable in the skin of Henry Higgins. There are just a couple of moments which seem a tad forced, for example, while under admonishment from his mother, played by Rula Lenska, he takes on the demeanour of a sulking school boy. Lenska’s Mrs Higgins has subtle shades of her son in her character and there is feeling that in some respect the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. McGowan and Lenska are brilliant together, they have a real feeling of joint history, their verbal combat is multi layered and timed perfectly.
Then there is Eliza Doolittle played by Rachel Barry. There is Eliza the poor flower seller and Eliza that is Higgins’ work of art. Barry contrasts the two Elizas beautifully. The screeching, defensive flower girl is animated and forceful whereas the newly sculpted lady is stiff and cold with her spirit crushed until in the final act Barry infuses the spirit of the first with the articulate control of the second. Barry’s Eliza doesn’t always feel as ifshe has the same core of truth as McGowan’s Higgins, nonetheless the two of them spar together superbly. In a nice touch, director David Grindley creates a telling image of Eliza prostrate at Higgins feet in the form of his slippers; fabulous.
The supporting cast are all excellent. Paul Brightwell’s Pickering has just enough military in him and just the right amount of warmth without being too obvious. Mrs Pearce played by Charlotte Page is a strong moral Irish force, a believable arbiter to Higgins’ selfish extremes. Eliza’s father Alfred is give a lot of Shaw’s socialist philosophy to orate. Jamie Forman deals with this dense text superbly. He gives it pace and comic timing keeping it palatable and lively from the off.
This production mercifully avoids any real implication of Elisa and Higgins being in love. They definitely both seek something from each other and their dance around the possibility of their finding it is dramatically excellent. We can believe Elisa when she says her final goodbye.
These characters are so well drawn and the play’s central conceit is such a rich seam it could easily sustain many seasons as a TV drama exploring the swathes of character journey that Shaw omits or only implies. This whole production is an absolute delight and McGowan with his vocal dexterity is absolutely perfect for the rôle. We get to spend all too little time with these fabulous characters. A masterpiece masterfully executed in all respects.
Runs until 10th May and on tour