Last week (15 May 2008, previews from 7 May) saw the opening of Peter Hall’s much-heralded Bath production of George Bernard-Shaw’s Pygmalion at the Old Vic. Starring Michelle Dockery (pictured) as cockney heroine Eliza Doolittle and Tim Piggott-Smith as her elocutionist Henry Higgins, it runs until the 2 August 2008.
Hall’s acclaimed revival won this year’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Award for Best Regional Production, following its initial season last summer at the Theatre Royal Bath, where the director has had an annual summer residency for the past six years.
The play, which was the inspiration for the musical My Fair Lady, tells the now-famous story of Henry Higgins, the arrogant professor of phonetics who makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that he can turn a cockney flower girl into a duchess.
Critics received the "belated" transfer warmly, with a spate of four-star ratings adorning the weekend’s newspapers. Hall’s “exquisite” production was praised for its “uncharacteristically traditional” approach, with the lengthy scene changes and classical staging harking back to a bygone theatrical era. The performances too received universal appreciation, with Dockery’s “statuesque, breathtaking” portrayal of Eliza and Piggott-Smith’s “overgrown schoolboy” interpretation of Higgins going down a treat. Of the supporting roles, particular praise was reserved for Barbara Jefford for lending the character of Mrs Higgins a “wonderful patrician anger”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “We all love My Fair Lady, but although you sit through Peter Hall’s exquisite production of the source play, Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, waiting for the tunes to turn up, there is no questioning the fact that you are witnessing a dramatic masterpiece in its own right … Piggott-Smith’s bendy-limbed Higgins is a mixture of big booby and spoilt mother’s boy, fixing on the Covent Garden flower girl with indecent enthusiasm and looming around her in his cluttered laboratory in Wimpole Street with the nuttiness of a mad professor, thrusting his hands ever deeper into his baggy cardigan pockets … I have never seen a better Eliza than Michelle Dockery’s statuesque, breathtaking beauty with the rough edges knocked off, coming into her own as a sensible, independent woman … The lesson she’s learned is that the only difference between a flower girl and a lady is the way she’s treated, and it’s not one she’s going to forget.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) –
“Acclaimed in Bath last summer, Peter Hall's marvellous production of Pygmalion has finally reached London. It not only puts the seal on the recent Shaw revival, in its mixture of comic ecstasy and tragic pain, it shows exactly why Shaw's play is far superior to the sugar-candied My Fair Lady that Lerner and Loewe fashioned from it … The musical implies a romantic future for Higgins and Eliza but, in the original, Shaw celebrates Eliza's new-found independence while showing the human cost for a Frankenstein abandoned by his creation. Both actors play this superbly. Dockery rejoices in her power while recognising that freedom brings its own sacrifices. And Pigott-Smith, his hands at one point playing lightly over Dockery's swan-like neck, is agonisingly torn between delight at Eliza's evolution and a wounded resentment at her desertion. Under the battle of wills, what comes across is a profoundly Shavian sense of solitude … the joy of the evening is that a great play has been faithfully restored reminding us that Shaw's intellectual vitality masked a real sense of life's comedy and pain.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “The play's main irony, which is that the upper-class Higgins rates far below the prole Eliza in both sensitivity and etiquette departments, is evident from the start, at times almost too much so. I hesitate to criticise the wonderfully watchable Tim Pigott-Smith, but he does lay on the infantilism a bit thick … I'm not sure that Hall's final suggestion, which is that Higgins's seemingly reproachful mother is secretly babying and therefore encouraging his immaturity, has a Shavian justification; but that didn't prevent me appreciating Barbara Jefford, who brings an exhausted tolerance to the role. She also presides as world-wearily as you'd wish over the great afternoon-tea scene. Looking exquisite, Dockery's Eliza says all the wrong things in exactly the right voice. Looking like a triumphant chimp, Pigott-Smith sprawls, munches, listens. And did I laugh? Indeed I did.”
Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times – “Pygmalion may be set a century ago but, remarkably, it still speaks to us today. Granted, we may not see flower girls on the streets, but we live in an age obsessed with image and makeover. So while Peter Hall’s excellent production remains firmly rooted in an Edwardian London, the questions Shaw raises about identity, class and gender come ringing across … The play is sharper and tarter than the musical My Fair Lady. But while Hall’s production delivers Shaw’s shrewd wrath, it also revels in the play’s comic potential. Michelle Dockery is excellent as Eliza: her porcelain composure as she details the demise of her aunt at Mrs Higgins’s tea-party is funny yet dreadfully poignant … The supporting cast is very strong too, with a watchful Colonel Pickering from James Laurenson, a bright, beady Mrs Pearce from Una Stubbs, and a quietly exasperated Mrs Higgins from Barbara Jefford.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “How cheering it is to see this beautiful, comic fantasy by Bernard Shaw, in which poor little Cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle (elegant Michelle Dockery) vaults class barriers and achieves upward social mobility, thanks to elocution lessons with Professor Higgins. Peter Hall’s thought-provoking production, admired at Bath last summer, made me think how Cherie Blair relates to Pygmalion’s 1912 world. Sir Peter offers no such linkage, but Mrs Blair and Eliza Doolittle are spook-ily alike, although Eliza displays the good taste and style to which Mrs Blair and her new autobiography are strangers … Tim Piggott-Smith, in dynamic form, portrays the Professor of Phonetics as a dishevelled bundle of nervous energy and theatrical extroversion. Sprawling, restless and loose-limbed, eccentric in his childlike self-centredness, he treats Dockery’s spirited but not that Cockney Eliza as if she were some intriguing laboratory specimen … The Professor offers Eliza nothing more than a sexless ménage à trois, chums together with James Laurenson’s Colonel Pickering. In this delectable comedy of male-female relations sex remains off the menu.”
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