PYGMALION – Theatre Royal, Bath & TOURING

NO SQUASHED CABBAGE LEAVES:  A FAIR TRIUMPH

 

Rarely have I seen George Bernard Shaw’s tumbling torrent of ideas and indignations delivered with such joyful, entertaining panache, or been happier to forget its artificially-sweetened version, My Fair Lady. David Grindley’s production is a firecracker. Even the wordier passages about class and culture spin exhilaratingly along, and it is good to be reminded that one of the funniest scenes in theatre is the tea-party moment, where Eliza’s painfully posh accent utters sentences of Cockney vigour (“It’s my belief they done the old woman in” ). The Lerner & Loewe musical makes too little of that: in the original it’s a riot.

 

Much of the credit must go to Alistair McGowan as Professor Higgins. I had not known what a fine stage actor he was, such is the ubiquity of his TV comedy and impressionism. His Henry Higgins is tremendous: funny, but also catching and making real all the vanity, breezy professional self-confidence and alpha-male callousness of Shaw’s creation. He rattles, explodes, commands, insults Eliza’s “depressing and disgusting sounds…kerbstone English that will keep her forever in the gutter!” He says appalling things, but his reckless unselfawareness makes even that oddly endearing: when the newly elegant, angry Eliza finally turns on him he expostulates “I created – this – out of the squashed cabbage-leaves of Covent Garden!”. He is the ultimate unforgiveable. But when his mother upbraids him and he sprawls and hunches like a schoolboy, you forgive.

 

The other brilliant surprise is Rula Lenska, not seen often enough onstage. She is no mean comedienne (have a look at http://tinyurl.com/owhhfyz) and here makes the most of her capacity for sharp timing and queenly, statuesque stillness. But she also radiates a lovely exasperated matriarchal warmth: for Mrs Higgins is the first character apart from the housekeeper (Charlotte Page) to see that Eliza is a human being and that giving her the appearance of a counterfeit “lady” will cause her painful alienation. And as Eliza herself, Rachel Barry is endearing, but equally importantly manages the technical accent-switches required: from Cockney “neeeoooooow I’m a good girl I am”, to terrible zombie over-carefulness at tea, and finally to natural RP. That’s never an easy gig, and she handles it well.
The class politics are fascinating too; prescient for 1914, Shaw has little patience with his upper-class characters, the Eynsford-Hills, and worries away amusingly at the character of Alfred (Jamie Foreman) who prefers to stay among “the undeserving poor”, prefers a fiver to a tenner because “£10 makes a man prudent”. HIs horror of being elevated, “intimidated, bought up!” into the boring anxieties of middle-class morality is a direct ancestor of our TV series SHAMELESS.
So for two and a half hours you think, you laugh, you feel, you admire. Shaw can be a struggle for modern audiences, but this is a corker.

RATING:  four   4 Meece Rating
box office 01225 448844 to 29 March
touring to 21 June http://www.pygmalionuktour.co.uk/  Touring Mouse wide

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