Bernard Shaw’s Pygamilion is on a UK tour a century after its opening night. The humour feels fresh and the message still matters.
Shaw’s play first opened in London one hundred years ago last Friday – 11 April 1914. The story spins around the idea that a professor of phonetics, the arrogant and self-involved Henry Higgins, will not be able to pass off as a fine lady the ambitious, mouthy flower girl from London’s East End, Eliza Doolittle.
The casting in this production is by Anne Vosser and she has chosen with such care that Shaw himself seems to be in the theatre.
Higgins is played by Alistair McGowan. His electrifying enthusiasm is so dominant and persuasive that we know this social experiment is plausible. It’s his energy balanced against the graceful indulgence of his mother, the brilliantly cast Rula Lenska, that holds the turmoil in place.
Eliza Doolittle (Rachel Barry) is trapped in the middle. Her ambition has led her to Higgins’ study in the hope that with his help, and that of his fellow enthusiast, Colonel Pickering (Paul Brightwell), she might elocute her way out of the ‘gutter’. She has no idea what she is letting herself in for her despite the sobering words of Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs Pearce (Charlotte Page). The situation is horribly funny but saved from becoming ridiculous by Barry’s ability to draw laughs without letting the emerging Eliza lose character or dignity.
Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father, played by understudy Russell Layton on the Thursday we were in the audience, had an awkwardness – gift perhaps of the understudy – that suited to perfection the heavy-drinking philosopher dustman. Doolittle’s moralising adds another layer to the elocution challenge and underlines the then widely-accepted irrelevance of the female at its heart.
It’s an uneasy message of inequality depicted throughout the play by characters on the edge of farce, yet real enough to hold our belief.
David Grindley’s production captures all the entertainment and the truth behind it. It’s fast, full of laughs and strangely heartbreaking.
The tour continues until mid-June, Richmond is next. Click on the link below for further dates and venues.