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Friday, 14 May 2010

Theatre - Pygmalion - Royal Exchange

Star rating – 7/10

Following on from Posh at the Royal Court on Monday, and the continuing Dave/Nick Con-Lib love in, the theme of the week seems to be the class system. It is very aptly continued then in this revival of George Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion at the Royal Exchange. Shaw wrote a very funny play, but one that is also a biting social commentary on the class system that he witnessed, that was famously turned into the musical ‘My Fair Lady’.

The story is familiar – Professor Higgins makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that he can turn Eliza, a cockney flower girl, into a lady. He sets out to transform her and equip her for life in high society – but he does not reckon on her determination and spirit. This version directed by Greg Hersov is well done. The first half of the play is very funny indeed, especially the contribution of Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, played by Ian Bartholomew, the dustman who appeals to Henry Higgins as one of the ‘undeserving poor’ and whose own take on the class system is so accurate that Higgins and Pickering wonder that he isn’t a politician.

Why not a higher rating then? Well, something about the main performances just didn’t sparkle enough for me. Cush Jumbo as Eliza, and Simon Robson as Henry Higgins, are good, but just not outstanding. Eliza’s costumes are beautiful. Gaye Brown is impressive as Henry’s formidable mother Mrs Higgins, who becomes an unlikely refuge for Eliza when she feels neglected by her mentors.

The play is not all a barrel of laughs – there is some serious social commentary here about the position of women and of the middle classes in general. Shaw did write a great play – and this is a good, but not quite great revival of it. Funny but just lacking a bit of sparkle. But then with the images of Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison so vivid in the memory in the musical version, it was always going to be hard to measure up.

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