‘Full of memorable performances and thought-provoking social observations, David Grindley’s Pygmalion is a thoroughly entertaining adaptation marred only by its lack of emotional subtlety’
It was just over a century that Bernard Shaw’s study of social inequality, Pygmalion, was first performed at London’s His Majesty’s Theatre and this infamously adaptable play has lost none of its relevance in the intervening years. David Grindley’s interpretation, currently on stage at the Oxford Playhouse, is an enjoyable, at times uncomfortably pertinent adaptation that is marred only by its lack of emotional subtlety.
Rachel Barry plays Eliza Doolittle, a common flower girl working the streets of London who, without much choice in the matter, becomes a guinea pig in the social experiment of one Henry Higgins (Alistair McGowan), a respected elocution expert. Spurred on by the encouragement of his friend Colonel Pickering (Paul Brightwell) and the apparent indifference of Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle (Jamie Foreman), Higgins attempts to ‘make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe’ with hilarious, and morally questionable, results.
Barry is brilliantly entertaining as the guttersnipe-turned-duchess Eliza and is at her best in Act 3, a hysterical scene in which Higgins attempts to ‘pass her orf’ as a lady at a tea party thrown by his mother. ‘Are you walking across the park, Miss Doolittle?’ asks the dim-witted Freddy (Lewis Collier); ‘Not bloody likely!’ replies Eliza, in a vague approximation of an upper-class accent.
McGowan is equally enjoyable as the inconsiderate Henry, somehow managing to be simultaneously likeable and repugnant. His incessant fidgeting and callous snobbery are extremely effective in conveying his impatience.
Foreman’s fantastically loquacious Alfred Doolittle is the unquestionable highlight, however. His extended ranting on the perils of that feared bastion of propriety, ‘middle-class morality’, is marvellously funny and provides a pertinent commentary on Eliza’s transformation. ‘I’m undeserving and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it and that’s the truth’, Doolittle confesses with estimable swagger, leaving the audience to ponder the true benefit of transcending class boundaries.
Yet despite these commendable individual performances, the play suffers from a lack of inter-character chemistry. Although Higgins is entirely believable as a cold-hearted bastard, he is wholly unconvincing when expressing any sentiment. Similarly, for all Barry’s engaging humour, she lacks a certain depth of feeling that renders her Eliza somewhat one-dimensional. This shallowness translates to the play as a whole and although one is left thoroughly entertained, the emotional content of the adaptation is notably absent.
This having been said, the social relevance of the Shaw’s play is well drawn out. At the time of Pygmalion’s writing in 1912, the perception of women as individuals rather than property was a relatively controversial view. It was only a year later that the suffragette Emily Davison threw herself under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in pursuit of relative gender equality.
It is this lack of recognition that director Grindley chooses to place centre stage. As Eliza transformation from ugly duckling to swan progresses, one begins to see that Higgins uncomfortably indifferent attitude towards Eliza’s feelings is less to do with her class than her gender. It is a message still relevant today; a 2013 study by the Trades Union Congress revealed a difference of £8.22 in the average hourly wage of men and women.
As Professor Leonard Conolly details in the programme, Pygmalion is a play that has been frequently altered, most famously in the romanticised musical version, My Fair Lady. Grindley is refreshingly conservative, downplaying any suggestion of sexual tension between Eliza and Henry and focussing instead on Shaw’s original themes of class and gender inequality. It is a laudable intention. His humorous interpretation is full of memorable individual performances and thought-provoking social observations.