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.

In ancient mythology, Pygmalion was the king of Cyprus who fell in love with a statue of his own invention. In one of the best new films of the year, Lars and the Real Girl, a social misfit finds platonic fulfilment with an inflatable doll. Tim Pigott-Smith as the emotionally blinkered phonetician Henry Higgins makes a duchess of the flower girl Eliza Doolittle and treats her as part trophy arm candy, part domestic skivvy.

It’s this area of sexual fantasy, exploitation and indecision that makes Shaw’s play so perennially fascinating and Hall’s production so compelling. And 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. Like Liz Robertson some years ago, she is a natural Essex girl – both hail from Chadwell Heath near Romford – but with an innate spiritual aristocracy about her.

The play is handsomely designed in a conventional manner by Simon Higlett, with fine costumes by Christopher Woods and expert lighting by Peter Mumford. The first scene change talks too long and the heart sinks as the Elgarian music swells. But the show then takes off like a rocket, galvanised by the boyish cross-talk of Higgins and James Laurenson’s Colonel Pickering, a character for once unencumbered with false jollity.

Then there is Tony Haygarth’s dustman Doolittle, a garrulous class warrior phrasing his comic speeches in perfectly articulated gulps. Barbara Jefford is an imperious Mrs Higgins, Una Stubbs a delightful Mrs Pearce and Matt Barber a notably grinning, gormless Freddie Eynsford-Hill.

But Dockery’s unforgettable Eliza has the last word, leaving no room for the sentimental ambiguities of the film or musical. 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 Coveney


NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from 17 July 2007 when the production opened at the Bath Theatre Royal.

George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion has been so overtaken by Lerner and Loewe’s classic musical, My Fair Lady, that we forget what a barbed piece the original play actually is.

Sir Peter Hall’s production at Bath is the best reminder that it’s much more than a romantic tale of a confirmed, egocentric phonetics professor-cum-confirmed bachelor having his head turned by an ugly duckling turning into a swan. It is actually on a par with Shaw’s other provocative assaults on the sexual politics of his day and the role of women in society.

Pygmalion is about manipulation, but peppered as it is with wit and mischievous digs at the English upper middle classes and the bedevilling sin of English society, accent, it’s also seductively light-hearted.

However, the glory of this production by Hall and co-director Cordelia Monsey (the daughter of actress Yvonne Mitchell who notably herself played Eliza in London in the 1950s) is that it gets the comedy right whilst I would defy anybody to come away untouched by the final 15 minutes set-to wrangle, give-as-good as you get denouement between Michelle Dockery’s Eliza and Tim Pigott-Smith’s fidgety, clinically immature, Peter Pannish Henry Higgins.

Dockery is a discovery, a statuesque beauty who makes the transformation from grubby Covent Garden flower girl with howling vowels to elegant socialite with delightful and amusing conviction. But she also makes you feel the emotional, inner cost of Higgins’ cruel and cavalier experiment in social engineering, her sense of isolation.

“What is to become of me? Where shall I go,” she cries with genuine anguish after Higgins’ refusal – or here, Pigott-Smith lets us see quite plainly, his inability - to commit to any kind of emotional relationship with Eliza despite his admission of how fond he has become of her. This together with Higgins’ palpable relief at Eliza’s final, if hard-won assertion of independence, makes this one of the most cracking gender duets on stage for some time – all the more unexpected coming from the playwright most often dismissed as boringly propagandist or dialectical.

I hope London gets a chance to see it. Dockery and Pigott-Smith are stylishly supported in Simon Higlett’s handsomely designed production complete with Covent Garden columns, art deco interiors and an old London taxi-cab, by a cast of stellar weight and timing – Barbara Jefford as Henry’s dominant but, you sense, exasperated mother, Tony Haygarth as Alfred Doolittle, Una Stubbs as Mrs Pearce the housekeeper and best of all, Barry Stanton, a wonderfully rounded benevolent partner-in-crime figure as Colonel Pickering, aiding and abetting his friend’s appalling and selfish conceits.

Terrific stuff.

- Carole Woddis