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Theatre Review: Pygmalion/Manchester Royal Exchange

Joan Davies sees George Bernard Shaw's pre-musical version of My Fair Lady

Published on May 19th 2010.

Theatre Review: Pygmalion/Manchester Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange Theatre’s production of Pygmalion is a hugely enjoyable revival of an engaging and familiar story. Even if we’re more used to the version with songs, for Pygmalion became the success story that was My Fair Lady, we know what to expect: a story about a young woman changing her identity in a changing world where the rules are not always what they seem. But if you haven’t seen the non-singing version before be prepared for rather more depth as well as quite a few laughs.

As Eliza develops her character and self-esteem, so does she cause the men in her life to re-examine their own roles, abilities and needs. It’s as if Gok Wan or Trinny and Susannah ended up questioning their own failings.

The young woman, Eliza Doolittle, is a ‘common’ flower-girl selling to the wealthy and would-be-wealthy theatre-goers in Covent Garden. Overheard by phonetics experts Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering, she is taken on and developed as an experiment. Can such a common voice be changed? Can the masters of phonetics confound those who judge on outward show? And what will become of Eliza? (And, as Higgins muses, does it even matter?)

It sounds like a silly plot. Just add some character building, a romance and some nice costumes and it’s ready to be transformed into a lovely musical.

But it’s written by George Bernard Shaw. So it’s intelligent, insightful and funny, and often ambiguous. Shaw can be a little wordy for some, but this production shines. Greg Hersov’s direction keeps it well-paced, and rooted in highlighting the contradictions of its time. The production and characters explore the way people view themselves and how they are treated by others, as well as class and economic circumstance.

The opening scene introduces us to the characters and reveals the stark contrast in their lives. Eliza is terrified that she could be jailed as a prostitute if her flower-selling approaches are misconstrued, while Clara Eynsford-Hill is upset about her brother’s incompetence in ordering a taxi. By the end Eliza can pass for a duchess and order her own taxis, while Clara is …. still Clara.

The name Pygmalion comes from an ancient myth about a sculptor who was so disillusioned with the women he met that he sculpted and fell in love with a marble or ivory woman, Galatea. She was eventually brought to life, marriage, and presumably obedience by Aphrodite or Venus, depending on whether you lean to the Greek or the Roman version.

Shaw leans to the Shavian version where the woman is real with a mind and determination of her own. Not only that but as Eliza develops her character, her confidence and what these days would be called her self-esteem, so does she cause the men in her life to re-examine their own roles, abilities and needs. It’s as if Gok Wan or Trinny and Susannah ended up questioning their own failings.

The Royal Exchange cast is excellent. There’s a fine, multi-layered performance from Ian Bartholomew as Alfred Doolittle. He celebrates his wayward life with an almost bewitching logic and charm, dissipated by his cruel and believable exercise of power to terrorise his daughter. Gaye Brown, as Henry’s loving yet exasperated mother, performs with superb comic timing and genuine warmth.

Cush Jumbo’s debut at the Royal Exchange shows a young actress relishing the power such a transformative role conveys. Accents, body language and poise change in line with the demands of the plot yet she is always underpinned by a strength and determination to succeed, whether as a flower-girl or as an independent woman. She can be very still on stage. Quite powerfully still.

There’s also a delight in the relationship between Terence Wilton’s Colonel Pickering and Simon Robson’s Henry Higgins. The two actors convey a schoolboy delight in the games their knowledge allows them to play and a genuine obsession with their field. In a modern setting and a different field of knowledge they’d hardly raise their heads from their computers, but they’re saved by the fact that their specialism in phonetics necessitates having conversations with people.

Set, costumes and design are of the standard we have come to expect and good use is made of the intimacy of the theatre-in-the-round setting. Just occasionally lines are not fully audible to the section of audience behind the actor. This problem is usually resolved within a day or two.

For a play written almost 100 years ago, this production feels remarkably up-to-date due to the quality of the writing, the pace of the production and our modern familiarity with make-overs and their impact on self-image. You’re left in no doubt of Shaw’s views on the hypocrisy of the rigid Edwardian class system and his support for a positive view on the perception and judgement of women, but you don’t feel preached at or lectured to.

An excellent and entertaining evening at the theatre.

Pygmalion, Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann’s Square, Manchester, until 19 June, £8.50-£29.50 (concessions available), 0161 833 9833, www.royalexchange.co.uk

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Peter Coyle

i wish i had been there…it sounds like something joyous and anarchic...the way the article is…

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Couldn't agree more. This is a super piece. Ken would be proud that not a penny of public money was…

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Reader Xxx

The review was indeed brilliant - congratulations Angie. The show must have been very special -…

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Claudia Boulton

Thanks Angie for your brilliant piece, so glad you wrote it! Now i know what was going on! Being in…

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