A fortuitous set of circumstances combined to enable me to go see Pygmalion at the Royal Exchange with Aunty Jean and my father, being up near Manchester for the weekend, and how glad am I that I did. I used to visit the Royal Exchange quite often when younger but it is years since I have been and I was also quite intrigued to see the play itself, never having seen it before, only in its adapted musical form as My Fair Lady. (I was on the lookout for the links between the two in particular around the songs, but the only song title I picked up from the dialogue was ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face’).
When Henry Higgins makes a bet with Colonel Pickering that he can turn a cockney flower girl into a lady, he sets out to change Eliza Doolittle completely and equip her for life in high society – but he reckons without the spirit and strength of Eliza herself. It is a scathing comment on the class structure of Britain at the turn of the century and a surprisingly modern take on the gender politics of the time, but above all highly entertaining and really rather funny.
As Eliza Doolittle, Cush Jumbo is very convincing both as the rough and ready flower-girl and the elegant lady that emerges from the meddling of Higgins, Her control of the hysterical tea party scene where she has mastered the manner of speaking like the upper classes but not quite about the same topics and with the same language was absolutely superb. She had the audience rolling in the aisles, tears streaming down our faces in a perfectly played scene which was worth the entrance fee alone. Simon Robson’s Professor Higgins is nicely authoritative and arrogant and perfectly captured the spoilt little upper-class brat beneath the polished veneer, unable to see this as more than just an amusing little trifle rather than the life-changing transformation it actually becomes.
But this is a delightful ensemble throughout: Gaye Brown gives good Lady Bracknell as Mrs Higgins with a wonderfully exasperated relationship with her son, Julia Hills is excellent as the nosy neighbour, Terence Wilton brings a lovely avuncular warmth to Colonel Pickering but topping them all is an outrageously good performance from Ian Bartholomew as Alfred Doolittle the proudest member of the ‘undeserving poor’.
Staged simply, making use of the flexible round space at the Royal Exchange, different configurations of furniture suggest the various locations effectively and subtle lighting and sound effects enhanced the action nicely.
This Pygmalion really is superb, wickedly funny, touchingly poignant and acutely biting, Bernard Shaw’s writing holds up extremely well and the story remains timeless and affecting, despite the constant remakes and references. On a personal level, it was great to revisit an old haunt and it also served as a timely reminder that theatre outside of London can easily be of equal quality or even better, and that I really ought to try and see more of it!