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A CurtainUp London Review
Professor Higgins (Tim Pigott-Smith) is here portrayed as an overgrown schoolboy, a man with all the grace of an awkward thirteen year old who dresses in an overly long cardigan and puts his feet on the furniture. With his bachelor friend, Colonel Pip Pickering (James Laurenson) he has a wager that he can pass off Eliza as a duchess at a society ball. After the ball, Higgins is so full of his success that he forgets the instrument of his victory, the girl who has worked so hard to please.
The play has no sympathetic male characters, maybe with the exception of Higgins' accomplice, Pickering who at least seems to have some manners and Eliza's father, the dustman Alfred Dolittle (Tony Haygarth), one of the undeserving poor. Nice but dim, Freddy Eynsford Hill (Matt Barber) finds Eliza attractive but needs to marry for money as his desperate mother (Pamela Miles) beautifully conveys, the Eynsford Hills being gentility on their uppers. Higgins' crime may be a lack of consideration or forethought but he also comes over as a manipulator playing with Eliza for his own selfish amusement.
The scene which is sheer genius is when Higgins takes Eliza to his mother's (Barbara Jefford) house for an initial try out. Eliza's vowels and accent have been perfected but not her sentence construction or grammar which are as she would have spoken in her former life as a Covent Garden flower seller. She booms out, "How do you do?" with perfect 'o's but then lapses into, "But it's my belief that they done the old woman in . . . . Y-e-e-e-es, Lord love you!" The incongruity of her perfect enunciation and the low language is delightful. This scene culminates with Eliza's announcement, when invited by Freddy to walk across the park, "Walk! Not bloody likely. I'm going in a taxi!" The use of this swear word created a furore both in the original staging of the play and later in the 1936 film.
Tim Pigott-Smith's body language conveys the geeky professor as he stretches his cardigan, gesticulating with his hands stuck in the hip length pockets. He fidgets and whistles, eats mints in company and makes us think he is the one who needs lessons in deportment and etiquette. Michelle Dockery screeches the "Ah--ow--oo--ooh!"s as the best of Elizas and later makes a sad figure as she reflects saying, "The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated."
The sets are wonderful. Classical columns at Covent Garden for the opening scene which sees Higgins taking notes of London dialect and accurately pinpointing the exact part of London the speakers were born in. There is Higgins' study with its assortment of scientific paraphernalia and Mrs Higgins' elegant drawing room. Unlike the film we never see Eliza out in society except at Mrs Higgins' "At Home". But we do see her magnificent clothes and jewels, the latter of which are on loan. Michelle Dockery is stunning in the Edwardian cream suit and picture hat she visits Mrs Higgins in and equally gorgeous in her white ball gown for her final test which we see when she returns to Higgins' house.
Sir Peter Hall's production is a delight from beginning to end with pitch perfect performances from everyone including his exciting find Michelle Dockery.
For more about George Bernard Shaw's life and work, including links to other reviews of Pygmalion, check out our Shaw Backgrounder
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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