Tony-award winner David Grindley keeps a tight rein on George Bernard Shaw's wordy expose of social inequality Pygmalion in a mostly nicely-paced piece played for laughs.
At times Shaw's eulogising is soporific but generally the capable cast keeps the attention focussed.
Alistair McGowan, better known for his impressions but a competent comedy actor, plays the phonetics expert Professor Higgins as an enthused overgrown schoolboy manically juggling his spare change (hopefully) and social mores with equal indifference despite the admonishments of his austere mother (a beautifully haughty Rula Lenska).
Devoid of warmth and affection, a bet laid with language aficionado Colonel Pickering (played with great dignity by Paul Brightwell) lifts caterwauling Cockney flowergirl Eliza (a difficult to engage with Rachel Barry) to the dizzy heights of refined society but poses the question of what they have created and what next for her.
Shaw lampoons the rigid class system of the day with Alfred Doolittle (a scene-stealing Jamie Foreman) preaching unorthodox ethics, and decrying middle class morality and the ruination of money, while the upper crust, poverty-stricken Eynesford-Hills women genteelly bemoan their fate.
Lewis Collier's nice-but-thick Freddie is purposely underdeveloped as a character allowing Grindley to leave the ending as unsatisfactory as Shaw decreed – will Eliza return to find slippers and manage the appointments of the socially inept Higgins, marry the jobless Hooray Henry or set up in competition as a phonetics teacher?
With suffragettes demonstrating, World War One in the offing and a brave new world ahead, Grindley exacts comedy over lecture from the piece. A nicely paced afternoon tea allows Barry to flourish with the beautifully annunciated street talk – of who did in whom and gin being mother's milk – a highlight.
Jonathan Fensom's costuming is richly apposite for the times while his simple and versatile set allows the action to move deftly from Covent Garden to Wimpole Street to mother's drawing room with little interruption.