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Pygmalion at Manchester Royal Exchange

Published by: Caroline May on 19th May 2010 | View all blogs by Caroline May

Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s most popular comedy, has achieved such ubiquity over the last century that it’s now one of those plays where the audience are practically saying the lines with the actors, like a classical equivalent of The Rocky Horror Show.  And if they’ve seen the musical version, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, then they’ll probably be singing along too.

So the challenge for any director is to try and shine a new light on the story of a Cockney flower girl who is transformed into the convincing likeness of a duchess by an arrogant phonetics expert.

This version features Exchange regular Simon Robson as Henry Higgins, who with his imposing height and noble Roman looks initially comes across as a formidable combination of Sherlock Holmes and Jonathan Miller; a self-absorbed scholar with no interests beyond his learned pursuits.  However when Colonel Pickering (whiskery Terence Wilton), uneasy about Eliza’s welfare in a masculine ménage, bluntly asks, “Are you a man of good character where women are concerned?”, Higgins’s sexuality suddenly comes centre-stage.  The rest of the exchange, for all the professor’s professed cynicism, only serves to illustrate that despite his intellectual mien this Higgins is no bloodless ascetic - even the extraordinary way Simon Robson deploys his long legs is intensely physically expressive.  And the distinct frisson of attraction that later passes between him and Clara Eynsford Hill (Harriet Barrow) on his mother’s chaise longue is something I have never seen before.

Contrasted with the Professor’s transition from emasculated academic to red-blooded male, Cush Jumbo’s Eliza makes the opposite journey, one that takes us back to the story’s mythic roots where a man creates a sculpture and then brings it to life.  Her bedraggled street vendor persona is a fiery force of nature, but from the moment she begins her transformation into a “lady” Eliza is less a human being and more an animated statue - cold, aloof, self-contained, the long, slim Edwardian fashions and constricted vowels merely adding to the impression. 

Among the other iconic roles, Ian Bartholomew stands out as irrepressible dustman Albert Doolittle, and although it was his Act II monologue that drew the spontaneous round of applause, I was particularly taken by his crestfallen bridegroom in the final scene - the combination of chirpy east end rhetoric with silk hat and morning suit is irresistible.

Designer Ashley Martin-Davis strips the stage of all but the bare necessities in the way of furniture and props, which makes for a Covent Garden somewhat lacking in atmosphere but allows space during the drawing-rooms scenes.  And the sound design is simply magnificent.  Where Shaw, unlike Alan Jay Lerner, has carelessly failed to demonstrate the methods and progress of Eliza’s tutoring, Peter Rice uses scene changes between acts to mash up combinations of increasingly sophisticated piano music and elocution exercises to illustrate her phonetical progression.  

Director Greg Hersov and his lead actor Simon Robson have amply succeeded in redefining aspects of a play that is very familiar but which still has surprises bubbling under the surface. 


Pygmalion is on until Saturday 19 June 2010

Prices: £8.50-£29.50

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm [no performance Tues 25]

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30pm, Sat @ 4pm and Tues 25 May @ 2.30pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833



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