Fine words to make a fair lady

picture of Mrs Higgins (Rula Lenska) and her son Henry (Alistair McGowan)

Mrs Higgins (Rula Lenska) and her son Henry (Alistair McGowan)

Pygmalion

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

*****

 ‘A MAN will tell you nothing until you contradict him.’ My favourite Shaw quote popped into my head at Pygmalion last night.

The story, probably thanks to Lerner and Lowe, is familiar and far from rickety and arthritic.

Svengali figure, Professor Henry Higgins (Alistair McGowan), a world-renowned teacher of phonetics, meets Eliza Doolittle (Rachel Barry), ‘a good girl’ and bets his companion Colonel Pickering (Paul Brightwell), an expert in Indian dialects, that he can teach her to speak like a duchess within six months.

Henry’s mother Mrs Higgins (Rula Lenska), housekeeper Mrs Pearce (Charlotte Page) and Eliza’s dustman father Alfred Doolittle (Jamie Foreman) can all see that the ‘experiment’ is fundamentally life-changing for Eliza. Henry Higgins might teach Eliza to speak like a lady but changing her manners to suit the new class to which she will belong is a much bigger job, and one in which Henry Higgins has no chance of success because he doesn’t possess them himself. It is, as Shaw is wont, a diatribe on class.

Eliza is respectable poor and proud of it; she works for herself selling flowers outside the opera at Covent Garden. When she finds her new ‘voice’ she is more limited, marriage is her only ‘respectable’ option. The play moves inexorably towards its denouement as Eliza sees for herself the repercussions of the ‘experiment’ and tells Higgins where to get off. It is both an analogy for parent/child and teacher/pupil relationship. There is a power tipping point and Eliza’s turns her into a far better person than Henry Higgins will ever be. It is she who contradicts him and we learn a lot about his foibles and inadequacies.

A veritable constellation on stage delivers a first-rate, faultless performance. Alistair McGowan is built for Shaw. His wonderfully expressive, lightning comedy movements reach the underlying Higgins. I particularly liked the part where perched on a settee between Mrs (Jane Lambert) and Clara Eynsford-Hill (Anna O’Grady) at his mother’s ‘at home’ he wiggled his way to a little extra room. Alfred Doolittle’s speech about middle-class morality is wonderful. Delivered without a trace of malice but barrel-loads of self-pity, he sums up the ambiguities of Victorian morals

So why revive this play? What does it have to say to us? Shaw is sadly missed for his unerring ability to search out cant, greed, immorality, misery, avarice and the plethora of timeless urges that define our darker side. As both Doolittles step from one class to another there’s no going back. It’s a lesson for life. Directed by David Grindley, Pygmalion runs to 17-05-14.

Jane Howard

12-05-14 

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