Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: David Grindley
Reviewer: Holly Spanner
Don’t recognise the name? Perhaps you’ll recognise the story. Pygmalion is one of George Bernard Shaw’s most popular plays, first staged in 1912 (originally subtitled A Romance in Five Acts). Aristocrat and phonetics expert Professor Henry Higgins makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that he can transform Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a well-spoken, eloquent society lady. The name Pygmalion itself is inspired by Greek Mythology, where Pygmalion fell in love with one of his sculptures, which came to life and they marry. The play has been adapted many times, the most famous being the 1964 musical My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.
The play was revised in 1941, where Shaw removed any feelings of romantic attachment between Henry and Eliza; a notable difference from the musical. This ending leaves us as the audience, with both a sense of incompleteness but also questions the possibilities at what could happen next. Will Eliza can make it on her own, or return to the professor to fetch slippers?
Comedian and writer Alistair McGowan plays Henry Higgins and masters both the overt and subtle humour in the text in an exceptional performance, portraying a childlike frustration at his mother’s fussing’s and worrying. He is the man who never grew up, and with a flair for the eccentric, he balances the right amount of arrogance with naivety at the female psyche. The rôle appears effortless to McGowan, who as an impressionist has become skilled at phonetics and dialect himself.
Rachel Barry is a very lovable and independent Eliza Doolittle, and makes the transition from wailing cockney to Duchess with ease. Her painful realisation that she is a mere experiment is palpable, and felt throughout the auditorium. Paul Brightwell as the kindly Colonel Pickering provides a sense of humanity and compassion towards Eliza, acting as Higgins’ moral voice.
Jason Taylors lighting provides an almost vintage photograph hue to the scenes, which is accentuated by Jonathan Fensom’s costume design. The set fits neatly into itself and scene changes although few, are achieved with a Tetris like quality.
The narrative is often very dialogue heavy, however the delivery by the cast is engaging and entertaining that the central themes reveal themselves in the subtext. Pygmalion is described as being a classic British drama, and it certainly is that. It has middle class morality, language, gender and raises questions of social equality. Does having a particular accent keep you in a certain social strata? An interesting concept which has become somewhat lost over the years with the rise of social media and self-promotion, but perhaps, not too far from reality.Pygmalion is witty, stylish and funny; a thoroughly enjoyable evening out for any age.
“The English that [she speaks] will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days”
Runs until: 5th April 2014