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Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw at The Tabard Theatre

As the pilgrims assembled at the Tabard Inn on the Old Kent Road in 1370 in preparation for the journey that became Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, so last night a group of contemporary theatre pilgrims mustered at the theatre at the Tabard in Chiswick just by Turnham Green Station. I was there to review Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, a writer who like Chaucer was a master storyteller. Written in 1912 Shaw’s Pygmalion has like the Canterbury Tales become a classic. Pygmalion has been made into films, and musicals like My Fair Lady and provided the inspiration for Educating Rita and Daisy Pulls it Off. The word pygmalion has entered the language for any attempt to make a person or society in the image of another. Pygmalion syndrome as it were. Shaw saw immediately that Pygmalion gave him the perfect vehicle to explore his obsessions; class, language, gender and society. It’s a fascinating, intriguing and very pertinent play which has much to offer for us as we grapple with all of the aforesaid issues. DOT productions have put together a terrific adaptation which is a joy to watch.

Pygmalion at The Tabard TheatreWith limited resources, DOT productions have done remarkably well. Five actors play all the parts, and move the props between the scenes. Pete Gallagher’s direction is assured – he focuses on the key conflicts and ensures a brisk tempo is maintained throughout. Being a brilliant talent spotter he has chosen actors of outstanding talent, skill and dedication. The energy and zest for theatre shine through from all concerned. That includes the young girl selling programs in the foyer. Producers Louisa Marie Hunt and Andrew Lindfield turn the space of the stage into Covent Garden, a drawing room in Wimple Street, and a garden with nothing but a few props , lighting and Debussy.

As I say five actors play all the parts. Cassandra Hodges plays four. All five are clearly enormously talented. The range of accents articulated and the speed of transformation (in both costume and accent) from Cockney to Aristocrat is incredible. Note in particular Jack Matthews’ exit as an aristocratic and return 30 seconds later as a cockney dustman.

This shape-changing, language shifting and ultimately social class-moving dynamic is the focus of the play. Francesca Ottley captures Eliza Doolittle (she does much not little) wonderfully well. From her first scene as the cockney flower seller yelling ‘GETCH YER FLARS’ covered in dirt and wearing rags we know that she has nailed this part. Her journey from ‘guttersnipe” to respectable English Lady is the heart of the play. Francesca puts her all into showing us how painful and difficult this is for Eliza. We see a young woman finding both her self-respect and her own voice. It’s as moving today as it was in 1912.

The duo who conduct the social experiment on Eliza are Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering. The former played by Christopher Walthorne is one of those high-minded Vicwardians who spent their time ‘saving’ the poor. When Higgins meets Pickering (brilliantly captured by Andrew Lindfield) it’s as if Stanley had come across Livingstone but
in London, not Africa. Indeed for these Vicwardians the East End of London was darkest Africa. Colonel Pickering represents the best of these social investigators as he shows Eliza kindness and understanding, Higgins on the other hand is arrogant, authoritarian and angry. Shaw is at his best in showing that Higgins has as much to learn as Eliza. A forty-five-year-old virgin and mummy’s boy – he lacks self-knowledge. The two people who do much to put him right are his housekeeper Mrs Pearce (her name clearly intended as a pun on her voice and character) and his mother Mrs Higgins both wonderfully played by Cassandra Hodges. In a very funny scene as Henry launches into one of his temper-tantrums his mother takes him down with a short sharp “be quiet Henry and take your hands out of your pocket.

The comic genius of the show is Jack Matthews. Playing both the Aristocrat Freddy Hill and the cockney dustman Arthur Dolittle he is pure comedy gold. As Freddy, he is all camp high spirits and jolly japes. Seconds later he returns as a member of the lowest of the low a dustman dressed in rags. He is Chaplin-esque in the way he plays with his hat and walks around the stage. His comic timing is faultless. Asked by Pickering if he has no morals he replies in a heartbeat “can’t afford ’em“. His monologue on ‘middle-class morality’ is both indubitable and funny. His repeated use of the word ‘Gov’ner’ to flatter Higgins and Pickering is artful and effective. A whole tradition of comic conmen arrises from Arthur Dolittle: Flash Harry, Del Boy, Arthur Daley.

I can’t think of a play that presents serious social issues in a convincing and compelling way with tempo , wit and humour as well as Shaw managed to do back in 1912. The fact that it resonates with us now over a hundred years later is a mark of its value as an enduring classic and of the excellent work that DOT productions have done to make it come so vividly alive for us today. A play and a production that deserves to be seen.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Could a Cockney Flower girl really be transformed into a Fair Lady?
DOT Productions’ 12th annual tour concludes at the Tabard this September with their adaptation of this well-loved classic by George Bernard Shaw.

Will professor of phonetics Henry Higgins transform Eliza Doolittle enough to convince upper-class society that she is one of them, or will Eliza never forget who she really is?

Pygmalion explores the English class system with all of its petty attitudes and posturing. Full of wit & wisdom Shaw exposes the hollowness at the heart of that society, but it is not just about accents or class. It is about the battle of the sexes, of control!

Brought to the stage by a cast of 5 actors and DOT’s unmistakeable entertaining style this is not to be missed.

Pygmalion13th September – 1st October 7:30pm

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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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