The portico entrance to St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, on a wet autumnal evening. Edwardian toffs in top hats and capes accompany their young and not-so-young ladies, resplendent in the latest pencil-thin fashions, in a desperate search for an elusive 'cab'. Rain pours down as the upper classes mingle uncomfortably with the Covent Garden whores and costermongers. A young and particularly grubby flower girl plies her wares, deftly weaving a buttonhole with wire and bloom. Eliza Doolittle by name, possibly the most famous flower seller in the world.
Eliza's rough, rasping cockney accent cuts through the damp London night. Bernard Shaw's magnificent fictional creation, in a play first published at the height of the Great War in 1916, presents a feisty vulnerability and ready charm. Eliza is, however, being observed. Not by a Bow Street bobby, nor by a vicious nark, but by a bored minor aristocrat whose lifelong hobby has been elevated to a science of passion. Henry Higgins, the proud master of his own private 'phonetic laboratory', slyly records the raucous sounds emanating from those around him. Notebook in hand, he skulks around columns like a living, breathing surveillance system, listening to every utterance and locating every nuance of accent and dialect.
This is the wonderful tale of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, and it has been revived with all its Edwardian glory by Peter Hall at the Old Vic. Hall's meticulous attention to detail and skill at casting has brought together a creative team which rivals its National Theatre near-neighbour. Indeed, Hall's pedigree as one of the nation's greatest living directors guarantees a certain class for a production in which 'class' is everything. As the unfortunate father of Eliza bemoans his own thrusting into the middle classes through the death of an unknown American philanthropist, we recognize that 'class', for Bernard Shaw, was less to do with moral integrity and more with moral expectation. Then, as now, we expect more from those who through merit or birth (or mere celebrity) are thrust into the public arena. Then, as now, we are so often disappointed, especially when sympathy and empathy are not matched by intellect and breeding.
All eyes are, however, on the actors themselves. A truly memorable performance by Michelle Dockery as Eliza shines through this classy production. Dockery might begin as a grubby elder street urchin, but her transformation into an artificial duchess is subtle and believable. When Dockery's Eliza finally and forcefully confronts the tyrant who has created her, finally escapes the bond of her love for this intellectual monster, we catch a glimpse of the future. No longer ruled by patriarchy, women were, as Bernard Shaw was writing Pygmalion, forging a new world for themselves on a Home Front whilst their brothers, sons, fathers and beaus died in the trenches. Michelle Dockery takes us on her own eventful journey of discovery with dignified comic ease. A stunning performance.
Tim Pigott-Smith likewise rises to the challenge of Henry Higgins, a confirmed bachelor and part-time misogynist, whose Oedipal complex is at the forefront of his efforts to escape the bosom of his maternal attachment. Pigott-Smith swaggers and blusters, damns and blasts his way through Higgins's character self-assassination with bravura and panache. At times it seems almost unbelievable that Eliza should fall for this schoolboy monster, unless, of course, she is pre-empting her own personal Stockholm syndrome of confinement in Wimpole Street. Perhaps a little more charm from Pigott-Smith would be in order? Even so, the audience warmed to his arrogant disregard for formality.
As for Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle, there is little doubt that Tony Haygarth has made the part his own. Bernard Shaw appears to have created Alfred as the voice of an everyday, undeserving, working-class 'Everyman'. Alfred's catalogue of ruses for avoiding work and for scrounging off those with more money than he is fascinating in its callous honesty. His arrival on the intellectual 'scene', kicking and screaming all the way to the Hanover Square Church of his marriage, is a highlight of the play.
It would be wrong not to mention Barbara Jefford as the ever-patient mother of Henry Higgins, Pamela Miles as the impoverished and dotty Mrs Eynsford Hill, Emma Noakes as her society-struck daughter Clara, and Matt Barber as the equally Eliza-struck son Freddy. All people the stage with delightful comic characters. It is, however, that 'stage' which finally steals this particular show. Simon Higlett's stunning set design and Christopher Woods's sumptuous costumes recreate the Edwardian era at the height of its charm.
'The classical five-act structure of the play demands three mid-performance scene-changes (not including the interval), changes which, because of the complexity of the sets, require the curtain to fall for what feels like several minutes. When the curtain did eventually rise, the transformation, worthy of an Ovidian metamorphosis, was invariably greeted with gasps of admiration. Definitely worth the somewhat quaint and old-fashioned wait. Great entertainment from a great writer wonderfully acted and directed.
Kevin Quarmby © 2008