The Lincoln Center Theater’s lavish production of this absolute classic is a great fit for the Hippodrome stage. A huge company of performers and a whopper of a set all have room to cohabit. There is certainly no stinting on production values here.
Phonetics professor Henry Higgins encounters Cockerney flower seller Eliza Doolittle and their lives are changed forever. He diagnoses her with Irritable Vowel Syndrome and embarks on a project to get her speaking like a lady and accepted into high society within six months. And so we get a series of comic scenes where vowels are strangled until Eliza is finally able to impersonate her oppressors in the ruling class.
Higgins is a tough man to like. His views are problematic, even misogynistic, but Michael D Xavier imbues him with a kind of charm and enthusiasm that make us warm to him despite his Chauvinistic remarks. Charlotte Kennedy positively shines as Eliza, although I prefer her gorblimey stage to her more ‘refined’ moments. What snobs like Higgins fail to realise is that the beauty of the English language lies in its rich diversity of regional accents and dialects. There is no one way to ‘talk proper’. Be that as it may, Kennedy’s songs are to be relished. She looks and sounds the part, whatever the requirements of the scene.
Emmerdale’s John Middleton makes a sprightly Colonel Pickering, while EastEnders’s Adam Woodyatt brings the house down as Eliza’s gorblimey father, Alfred. Get Me To The ChurchOn Time is a real showstopper, staged here with all-out gusto. Lesley Garrett provides a nice spot of character acting as housekeeper Mrs Pearce, and you can hear her famous soprano ringing out in the chorus numbers. Tom Liggins, playing Eliza’s suitor Freddy, gets the best song of the show, the gloriously romantic On The Street Where You Live, and he sings it superbly.
Michael Yeargan’s impressive set never overshadows the action and director Bartlett Shaw has the characters moving through and around it fluidly. The sheer scale of the production knocks your socks off. And then there’s the sumptuous score by Frederick Loewe – such melodies! – and the evocative lyrics by Alan J Lerner. And you’re reminded why this is a prime example from the golden age of Musical Theatre.
Shaw (Bartlett) acknowledges Shaw’s (George Bernard) social commentary by restoring the starker final moment of original play Pygmalion – so don’t expect a cut-and-dried musical theatre happy ending.
A splendid old-school evening at the theatre combining Shavian class critiques with soaring romance.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Michael D Xavier and Charlotte Kennedy (Photo: Marc Brenner)
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 14th June, 2013
In a break from her in-house style, the New Vic’s resident director, Theresa Heskins helms this subversive piece from George Bernard Shaw. It is an entertaining and thought-provoking demonstration of her versatility.
It begins as an amusing comedy of manners – a young Englishman abroad with his friend, encounters a young woman and after much stammering in a Hugh Grant vein, asks her father for her hand in marriage. And then the trouble starts. It comes to light that Daddy is Sartorius, a self-made man, whose fortune comes from ill-gotten gains. In short, he is a slum landlord, screwing every farthing he can out of his desperate tenants. Nowadays he’d be trousering huge amounts of housing benefit, while publicly railing against the high cost of welfare. The source of Sartorius’s wealth gives rise to qualms in the young man. He (Trench) has been living comfortably enough on his annual income and informs his fiancée that two can live as cheaply as one… And then the source of Trench’s income is revealed…
By the time we reach the third of three acts we have been drawn into this world, largely by dint of charming, spirited and nuanced performances by the excellent company of actors. The true colours of the characters are on show, and they are not very attractive. Blanche (the excellent Rebecca Brewer) declares how she hates the poor in an outburst that is as heartfelt as it is distasteful. As Lickcheese (great name!) the rent collector with a conscience, the lively Leigh Symonds gives us a contrasting accent to all the posh voices but he, like Trench after him, quells his qualms when his own pocket is affected. Mark Donald is both endearing and infuriating as Trench, learning the true nature of the world and casting his ideals aside. He portrays the character’s awakening very effectively; you want him to make a stand against the injustice he has stumbled upon but, of course, he can and will not. He is Nick Clegg, finding himself in bed with vipers and then cosying up with them. Andonis James Anthony is superb as snobbish arbiter of good taste, Cokane, a kind of referee to the proceedings as the argument unfolds, but ruling the roost is William Ilkley’s Sartorius. The characterisation oozes power and self-assurance. A look or a gesture speaks volumes. This is his world and you’re in no danger of forgetting it.
Beautifully designed by Michael Holt, the production boasts an ingenious set that is impressionistic in its depiction of locations ranging from a Germanic hostelry to rooms in Sartorius’s house, and subtle in its symbolic reminder that these people are living on top of the poor. The costumes are sumptuous, complementing the performances to evoke the late Victorian period. Some social mores have moved on since then but, sad to relate, some attitudes prevail.
This is the uncomfortable truth of the play: Conscience and empathy are swept aside by selfish concerns. It’s not just about protecting one’s interests; it’s about exploiting one’s position for personal gain. Today, 120 years after the play’s premiere, it is sickening to realise that both sides of the House of Commons are still riddled with people like Sartorius and Trench.