Author: Bernard Shaw
Director: David Grindley
Reviewer: Bill Avenell
It is almost 100 years to the day since Pygmalion, probably the best known of Shaw’s plays first saw the light of the stage. For this fact alone and as an interesting comparison of the times, something that Shaw would no doubt have been keen to see although rather disappointed with the same old story of social inequality, this is an enjoyable production.
There cannot be many people who do not know something of the plot, largely through the auspices of ‘My Fair Lady’, although the musical gives an altogether more saccharine taste to the story. The raising of cockney Eliza Doolittle from flower girl to pretend duchess because of a bet between phonetics professor Henry Higgins and his friend Colonel Pickering, with the ensuing misery for Eliza and professional satisfaction for Higgins, is a classic of English theatre. It also unleashes dustman Alfred Doolittle, bastion of the “undeserving poor”, on the theatre going public.
Director David Grindley has gathered a good cast and puts them through their paces with aplomb. One thing you know you are going to get with Shaw is words and this performance was delivered with slickness and clarity. Grindley has an ingenious set from Jonathan Fensom at his disposal which manages to portray the grime of London streets, the chaos of bachelor rooms and the splendour of the Society drawing room with a minimum of disturbance. Fensom also produces a nicely understated selection of costumes and, to complete the infrastructure, Fergus O’Hare’s lighting adds character to the set, bringing out the contrasts in mood between the three venues.
The play will of course stand or fall on the performance of Henry Higgins and in the case of Alistair McGowan it certainly stands. He manages to portray Higgins as the enthusiastic academic, the totally insensitive egocentric and the naughty schoolboy all rolled into one in an entertaining and adept performance. He had some good support. Paul Brightwell, plays Higgins’ side-kick Colonel Pickering with a sensitive approach, a difficult rôle because he is so much in the Professor’s shadow and he combines with McGowan particularly well when ignoring Eliza after the triumph and reacting like little boys in front of Mrs Higgins. Jamie Foreman as Alfred Doolittle gives a solid traditional rendering of the cockney godfather type. Rachel Barry as a thoroughly endearing Eliza brings out the pathos of the situation and triumphs serenely in the end.
There is just a little something missing that prevents this production from scaling the heights. Perhaps it is that, good though their performances are, there is a bit too much of a TV cameo about the performances of McGowan and Foreman. Perhaps it is that the Pygmalion story is just not a very nice one and therefore using it as a basis for humour leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Whatever it is it just takes the edge off the production but there can be no doubt that a good house at Guildford certainly enjoyed their evening out and Shaw traditionalists will appreciate the fact that no attempt is made to change the author’s wishes with regard to the conclusion.
Tour photo ¦ Runs until Saturday 12th April.
Tags:Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford, Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw, David Grindley. Jonathan Fensom, Jason Taylor, Fergus O’Hare, Rachel Barry, Alistair McGowan, Jamie Foreman.