George Bernard Shaw
The Peter Hall Company
A luminous Michelle Dockery in absolutely sparkling form steals the show in Sir Peter Hall's transfer from Bath. The young actress's accent in the early scenes tends towards comic-cockney. However after Eliza Doolittle the flower girl's miraculous transformation, Dockery, who recently played Yelena for this director in Uncle Vanya at the Rose in Kingston, shows rare comic timing coupled with great poise and sensitivity.
Sir Peter and designer Simon Higlett have really pushed the boat out with three settings that look top quality, especially the wood-lined drawing room of Professor Henry Higgins, the modern day successor to the mantle of the mythical Pygmalion.
The story should be familiar, having been borrowed for My Fair Lady and to a lesser degree several other entertainments in different media. Tim Pigott-Smith and James Laurenson playing Higgins and his pal Pickering wager a large sum that within six months they can turn the ignorant, wailing flower girl into someone who could pass for a duchess.
With the help of Una Stubbs' insolently helpful housekeeper, Mrs Pearce, the unfeeling linguistic double act use all of their combined phonetic skills to mould their new toy into the (un)real thing.
The early experiments are obviously flawed as becomes apparent when this Frankenstein unveils his monster for the first time during his mother's at home. Barbara Jefford's Mrs Higgins is as horrified and amused as her guests when the perfect enunciation is used to trot out the language of the gutter, which is where Eliza has spent her whole life.
As she becomes a society regular, the pupil's mentor, who initially seemed omniscient when presented with an accent, demonstrates the psychological maturity of one who should still be in short trousers.
Rather than praise his pupil, Higgins will not give way to his affection or possibly even love for the young lady (and that word is used advisedly, regardless of breeding).
What has seemed like a light and extremely enjoyable comedy takes on greater depth with the appearance of Tony Haygarth as Eliza's philosophical dustman father, not that he isn't hilarious at times. Speaking like someone speeded up, indeed a little too much so at times, this splendid character actor makes the case for the dignity of the common man and later bemoans the pain of having to become middle class.
The wealthy men, having succeeded in their social experiment, heartlessly find no more use for the (beautiful) monster that they have created and a sad ending seems inevitable.
At that point, the attacks on inequality are then reiterated by haves and have-nots. In particular, after she has kept her part of the bargain and fooled the gentry, along the way acquiring the grace of a ballerina, Miss Doolittle speaks feelingly about the problems of leaving her own class without joining another.
Pygmalion sees Shaw at his least preachy, having great fun but for 2½ hours that feel like far less delivering important messages with great deftness. This production does him proud, even allowing for a few too many modern gestures from the immature Professor..
Really enjoyable crowd-pleasers like this delightful Pygmalion do not come along all that often so rush down to the Old Vic while tickets remain available.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher