PYGMALION is probably the most broadly appealing of all GB Shaw’s plays even if, like me, you inadvertently think of it as My Fair Lady without the songs. Indeed, the dialogue in the musical is so similar to the Shaw original that, almost literally, and more than once too, I half expected the band to strike up!
The play itself was written as a sharp satire on the British class system and, in particular, on the role of women in society. Today, of course, the latter has changed considerably and we can celebrate Eliza’s liberation at the end of the play, chuckling at Higgins and the new sense of insecurity he feels, in a way that, perhaps, an audience of 100 years ago might have found significantly more uncomfortable.
In terms of the British class system however, we can still recognise the attitudes of those in power and the sharp social divides that remain within our society. It certainly doesn’t take us long to realise how little has really changed in this direction since Shaw penned the play just over one hundred years ago. As Doolittle says in the final act of the play: “They’ve got you every way you turn!”
This is a sparkling production, both humorous and poignant, with dialogue that has stood the test of time and with some wonderfully spirited performances.
In the three central roles of Eliza, Higgins and Pickering, Sarah Easterbrook, Bill Peat and Tony Harrison were superb. I loved Eliza’s feistiness, Higgins’ arrogance and indignation and Pickering’s general aplomb and impeccable sense of comic timing. There was a real confidence to their performances which made them totally believable, no more so than in Act IV when Eliza first has to endure Higgins’ and Pickering’s long and indulgent self-congratulation before confronting the former and famously hurling his slippers at him. This was a beautifully directed scene, well-paced and with a fine eye, and ear, for detail.
In the supporting roles, Jane Wade was a convincing Mrs Pearce – I liked her business with the bowl of chocolates and the various reprimands and cautions she delivers to Higgins in Act II, while Val Atkinson as Mrs Higgins was a particular delight, exuding a natural air of graciousness and good breeding. The clarity and dignity of her speaking voice was one of the many highlights of the production.
“You certainly are a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll” she declares to Higgins and Pickering – the first in a series of such admonishments. She managed her guests, the Eynsford Hills, for afternoon tea beautifully too – another wonderful scene; Ann Baseden (Mrs Eynsford Hill) who simply cannot get used to the “new ways”, Helen Peat (Clara) who, in 1913, is naively eager to embrace whatever the future may hold and Dave Meakin as the equally naïve and charmingly love-struck Freddie who would most awfully like to meet Miss Doolittle again.
At the other end of the social scale, Alan Mash gave a very strong performance as Alfred Doolittle. Looking slightly (and maybe appropriately) like Lenin in profile – at least from where I was sitting – his eloquence, body language and general stage presence were commanding and his lengthy political diatribes a further highlight of the evening. Smaller, cameo roles were similarly well played by Jane Coe, Alison Mash and Valerie Harbour.
Although an experienced director himself, this was Alan Morris’ first production for the long-established Sturminster Newton Amateur Dramatic Society and he is to be warmly congratulated. He made good use of the difficult stage at the Exchange and the scene changes were fairly slick and, by and large, kept the play moving along nicely. The use of revolving flats was most successful and although I think I might have chosen to have dressed the lively bunch of scene-changers as servants rather than as Covent Garden workers, that is to quibble.
It is a pity that the little bits of mime that featured early on in both the major scene changes (for example the “snapshot” Higgins/Eliza elocution lesson we saw between Acts II and III) could not have been developed rather more as this would have made them even more entertaining, but no doubt there were practical reasons for this. Costumes, too, were most effective, one or two tableaux looking quite Renoir-ish. Some of the lighting could have been rather more atmospheric and the music which, according to the programme at least, was so much a part of the whole production concept, could perhaps have been a bit louder but this are minor considerations.
It was a really great show.