Creating a good impression

Pygmalion

Malvern Theatres

****

As an impressionist, Alistair McGowan stepping into the role of haughty phonetics professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion makes a lot of sense.

It means Higgins, an expert in dialects, can quickly and comically parody accents that he has studied all his life as he transforms cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle from a "guttersnipe" into a "duchess".

But what is more unexpected is the acting side to McGowan. The side of him that portrays the leading man as a petulant, impatient child toying with those around him.

He jumps up and down with excitement and stamps his feet when he doesn't get his own way.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised as McGowan is after all a Bafta-winning actor and is returning to the role that proved such a success for him in the past.

Pygmalion is the original George Bernard Shaw play from which the popular musical My Fair Lady was based. 

Alistair McGowan as Prof Higgins

We open with a chaotic, rainy meeting between rough and ready Eliza and Professor Higgins, which ends up with him having a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that he can fool high society into thinking she is a Duchess after just six months of tireless speech training.

Set at the turn of the 20th Century when class divides were unmistakable and women's rights were virtually non-existent, the issues affecting females and what happens when you move people up the class ladder are pronounced - not just for Eliza but her lovable-rogue of a father Alfred too.

The story unfolds between a dark lamp-lit study and Professor Higgins' mother's grand parlour and is sharp and witty throughout.

Rachel Barry is a delightful Eliza, transforming from a coo-ing muddy-faced commoner to a prim well-pronounced woman who has pride enough in herself to eventually play Higgins at his own game.

Amongst the small and excellent cast is also Rula Lenska as Higgins' patient mother and Jamie Foreman playing bin man Alfred Doolittle with gusto - he's had plenty of practice as a cockney though as he starred as Derek Branning in Eastenders. 

Paul Brightwell is also a steady hand on stage as polite, admirable Colonel Pickering.

With strong acting all round and a play that has stood the test of time, this production can't do anything but leave you with a good impression. To 03-05-14

Alison Brinkworth 

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