Cast: Anna O'Grady, Jane Lambert, Lewis Collier, Rachel Barry, Paul Brightwell, Alistair McGowan, Charlotte Page, Jamie Foreman, Rula Lenska, Katie Hawgarth, Andrew McDonald
Director: David Grindley
Writer: Bernard Shaw
Theatre: The Grand Theatre Leeds
Duration: 140 minutes
Start Date: April 1, 2014
End Date: April 5, 2014
Bernard Shaw’s most famous play, Pygmalion, visits the Grand Theatre Leeds this month. Drawing its title from the Greek myth about an artist who falls in love with his own sculpture, Pygmalion has influenced a body of cultural work in the past century, including adaptations such as My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman and more subtle derivations in Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes. It has even had artificial intelligence programs named after its leading lady.
Pygmalion follows the story of Henry Higgins as he meets Eliza Doolittle, a waiflike cockney flower seller with aspirations to improve her diction and become ladylike. She visits Higgins with a view to gaining elocution lessons, but he readily sees Doolittle as an opportunity for a great linguistic experiment. As remarkable transformations take place at his home on Wimpole Street, neither foresee the challenge, conflict and division which her cultural evolution will soon create.
Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion has a reputation that precedes it. Written in 1912, two years before World War I and a decade after the death of Queen Victoria, it is nestled between world-changing events and on the cusp of the suffragette movement. Shaw’s play buttresses womens’ rights in this regard, portraying Higgins as an arrogant, overgrown adolescent and Doolittle as an aspirational figure who is trapped within her own social, and sexual, division with little opportunity to grow. A show about education and social mobility, the play remains decidedly up-to-the-minute, faring better than many productions half its age.
Director David Grindley has brought the period setting of Pygmalion to the stage with a modern flair and pace. Admittedly the show takes a few minutes to get going, with an opening scene which feels a little too expositional and mechanical, however events soon settle down when Higgins’ study is introduced and his anarchic world is exposed. Although the dialogue remains fittingly archaic, the writing feels incredibly fresh with a pace which rips along giving the show a sense of modernity within a period setting. Grindley’s direction is naturalistic and effective, balanced with some imaginative staging. Jonathan Fensom’s workmanlike sets transform effortlessly, shifting from home to home in feldgrau shades which intone the somewhat rigid social freedoms of the period.
Casting is thoroughly excellent in this production, with Alistair McGowan providing a definitive Higgins. He brings a youthful bullishness to the role, laced with charm and idiosyncrasy. A jumble of long-limbed gesticulations and fidgety restlessness has evocations of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, whilst Colonel Pickering is effectively Higgins’ own Watson, played with dashing politeness by Paul Brightwell. An intriguing draw to the production is Rula Lenska, perfectly cast as Mrs Higgins. Lenska has an authoritarian air of stolid, sage dignity. She is an actor who draws attention, even when simply observing a scene in silence. Jamie Foreman paints a colourful portrait of Alfred Doolittle with roguish, brutish textures which is a comedy delight.
Rachel Barry assumes the role of Eliza Doolittle, the girl who becomes a lady in two hours of stage time. Her performance is nothing less than superlative, providing subtle transformations in each scene and honing a character from comedy to high drama in the play’s closing moments. There is a genuine sense of gradual evolution in Barry’s portrayal of Doolittle, which is both engaging and wholly believable.
There’s much to enjoy in Pygmalion and much to recognise through association. Fans of Holmes will see strong resemblances in McGowan’s Henry Higgins, whilst Doctor Who aficionados will be nodding in recognition of Higgins and Doolittle; proto-versions of Tom Baker’s Doctor and his companion savage, Leela.
Unlike a good number of ‘celebrated’ classic shows which always seem to fill houses because of an over-enthused reputation, Pygmalion is a play which lives up to the hype and transcends time, due in part to its excellent script. This version retains the energy of Shaw’s original intention, with all the freshness, humour and conflict of cutting edge theatre. A tautly written, sympathetically directed show, Pygmalion tells its tale at a brisk clip with humour and heart. In short, it’s bloody likely to impress for many years to come.
Originally published for Entertainment Focus.
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