It's not too much of an overstatement to say that George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion is one the most influential plays of our time. After all, this timeless story of poor Cockney flower girl Eliza Dolittle and her transformation into a 'real lady' forms the basis of many later creations, on film and stage, not least My Fair Lady and Pretty Woman. And the original article remains undimmed by imitation, as evidenced by the buzz of the first night Manchester audience for this new Library production.
It would be very easy for any director to presume that, because the material is classic and much loved, you could just coast by on famous one-liners and familiar scenes. Chris Homer, however, studiously avoids such an easy route. Instead, he gives Shaw's script a respectful shake and finds a genuinely fresh approach. Under Homer's direction, each scene is given meticulous attention to detail, with mesmerising results. You almost forget that you know this story backwards and forwards already.
In the lead, Zoe Henry is at times fragile, frightened and fearful of change. And the stunning makeover during the second act has more to do with her astounding star turn than expensive clothes and makeup. In the one part, Henry gives two great performances - 'Liza, the naive flower girl of act one, contrasted with Eliza, the astute young lady who dares to question her creator.
Which isn't to say that Henry steals the show. She is more than matched by Henry Higgins in the form of Christopher Wright, who gives the professor a real human frailty beneath the academic exterior. A special mention should also go to Margaret Robinson, as the formidable Mrs Higgins, who relishes every line she fires at her stage son. Elsewhere, the ensemble rises to Homer's challenge of breaking stereotypes - as a result, there really are no weak performances.
Judith Crofts' glorious design works a treat, too. Each set change is applauded as it compliments every other element of this slick and warm-hearted production.
This spirited offering from the Library is proof that regional theatre is alive and kicking, and that it can be just attractive as the bright lights of the West End when it is as wonderful as this. Trevor Nunn, Martine McCutcheon, Drury Lane - watch out!
- Glenn Meads