Most of us are familiar with the plot of Pygmalion, if not from the original play then from the musical version, My Fair Lady. Phonetics whizz Henry Higgins takes in cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle and attempts to transform her into Duchess material.
As the curtain rises to reveal a London street-scene in this century's teens, your first thought is that this production is potted nostalgia for the tourist-market. This is emphatically not the case. Although the lush scene-linking music and dresses redolent of Cecil Beaton suggest a world of romance, Pygmalion is at heart an exploration of class and morality.
But Shaw was anything but didactic and this sparkling production carries you along on a wave of laughter, from its opening to its bitter end. Without exception, the cast have an exact handle on Shaw's theme and dialogue. While some characters have relatively brief stage-time - Michael Elphick's Alfred Doolittle or Deborah Cornelius' Clara, for instance - all the actors make a strong impact with three-dimensional performances.
Roy Marsden is an engaging Higgins - every inch the outsider. Unable to sit straight on a chair, he is to be found lounging on the cushions which sit atop a pile of books or else circling the edges of the stage. He has the impatience and incivility of an errant schoolboy, pointed up in his exchanges with his mother, played with consummate elegance by Barbara Murray.
But the star of the show is newcomer Carli Norris. Norris, who has only just graduated from RADA, turns in a phenomenal performance as Eliza - by any standards. She has the audience in the palm of her hand, most notably during the tea scene, where she demonstrates impeccable comic timing. Norris' handling of the transformation of Eliza is utterly convincing. Her skilful portrayal points up the nagging question at the heart of the play - 'what's to be done with her afterwards?'
It is hard to believe that Pygmalion was written in 1912 and, should you head along to the Albery Theatre, do not expect a period piece. This stylish and intelligent production has much to say - about class and social mobility, the politics of gender and the educational divide - that is 100% relevant today.
Justin Somper, August 1997