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A CurtainUp London London Review

She's so deliciously low! So horribly dirty!— Higgins
Michelle Dockery as Eliza
(Photo: Nobby Clark)
Peter Hall's production of Pygmalion which originated at the Theatre Royal in Bath, comes to the Old Vic in London with rising star, Michelle Dockery playing the flower seller to society beauty, Eliza Dolittle. I have to confess that I had never seen Pygmalion in its Shavian version before, only the musical variety of the show that is My Fair Lady. Here, there will be no artificial happy ending but a play about social manipulation with little thought given by the protagonist to the consequences for the girl who has been taught to speak well but not given any other marketable talents.

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

Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Peter Hall
Associate Director: Cordelia Monsey

Starring: Tim Pigott-Smith, Michelle Dockery, James Laurenson, Tony Haygarth, Barbara Jefford
With: Pamela Miles, Emma Noakes, Matt Barber, Mark Extance, Peter Cadden, Steven Alexander, Mia Austen, Una Stubbs, Corinna Marlowe
Set Design: Simon Higlett
Costume Design: Christopher Woods
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Music: Mick Sands
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6628
Booking to 2nd August 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 20th May 2008 performance at The Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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