‘The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.’
What would Henry Higgins and Eliza Dootlittle be like in modern-day Britain? The Edwardian dress, cockney accents and shawls of George Bernard-Shaw’s original Pygmalion have been peeled away to reveal a fresh new take on a classic from director Sam Pritchard.
I went to see this new production at Nuffield Southampton Theatres in its third and final week at the venue, and fell in love with its modern update.
I’m a sucker for reimagined classics, modern set designs and humour. I’ve not seen the play in its original guise, and am only familiar with the 1964 film adaptation My Fair Lady: an incarnation which takes on the story in the form of a mammoth musical which, whilst delightful, seemed to go on for hours. In all seriousness, when I watched it with my mum, we ended up fast forwarding most of the songs so we could make it to the end before it got dark.
I arrived at the theatre not really sure what to expect. I had heard nothing but positive noises about the play, but had tried to shelter myself a little in the run-up so I could make my own judgement on the performance. I knew, however, that it had been brought right up to date; and as soon as the play began, I knew I would not be disappointed.
The pretentious and mysoginistic Henry Higgins has been reincarnated as an arrogant hipster who would not be out-of-place in Shoreditch (or so I am told by my friends in London). Similarly, Eliza is now not just a flower girl, but boasts a northern accent, to Higgins’s disdain, and finds herself in tracksuit bottoms and living in a tiny flat (which is, no doubt, so expensive she’s almost priced out of the capital.)
The play starts with a flurry of accents and voices being adopted by actors. Characters are given voices which don’t seem to suit them, recorded and lip-synced along to with the utmost precision. It was a fascinating start and entertaining too, especially when a young man ran on and began speaking with the voice of an elderly chap. This opening scene will have you amused and mesmerised and thoroughly hooked for the next two hours. It set the scene perfectly.
This was a brilliant introduction to the topics of voice, accent and identity which are the focus of the story. We are invited to question any assumptions of what people sound like, and the characteristics the voice gives them.
Throughout the play, we are taken on a journey with Eliza as she is taken in by phonetics academic Higgins and his colleague Colonel Pickering as an experiment, and also for a bet, and is ‘upgraded’ in accent and thus class. She is thrust into middle/upper class through elocution lessons, becomes a ‘duchess’ and disrupts Higgins’s world as she goes, but is unable to fully thrive, and her fate is the subject of debate, pain and tension.
The cast was utterly marvellous and performed fantastically from start to finish. Alex Beckett’s portrayal of the petulant Professor Higgins is full of energy; he is childish and stubborn and selfish but also, frustratingly, brilliant. His character, with his peroxide blonde hair and carefully curated outfits is clearly battling to suppress feelings and affection. Beckett is comical and talented and impressive. His rudeness towards all of the characters, even his mother, is childish. It is his continual treatment of Eliza as a common flower girl which prevents her from being able to completely adopt her new persona – he is part of his own problem.
Opposite Beckett is Natalie Gavin as hurricane Eliza. Her performance was, as Beckett’s, flawless, and she was vibrant and completely believable. I would still like to know whether her true accent is the honest northern or cut-glass southern, as she did both so well! Her transformation is both stunning and tragic and she and Alex were the perfect duo.
The cast was small but perfectly formed with each member giving their best. I loved Liza Sadovy as Mrs. Higgins, and thought Colonel Pickering was extremely cool and calm. Pickering, played by Raphael Sowole, reminded me a bit of Will.I.Am in terms of his modern style, and was the perfect antidote to the turbulent Henry Higgins. I really warmed to his character.
The whole performance was speckled with humour; from a spontaneous rave in Henry Higgins’s flat (with his housekeeper, played by Flaminia Cinque, really busting some moves!) to a brilliantly awkward tea-time scene (‘My aunt died of influenza, or so they said. But it’s my belief they done the old woman in’), as well as a bout of unexpected stand-up/social debate from Eliza’s father. It was the perfect mix of drama and comedy and the cast did this perfectly.
The social debate instigated by the performance was also great – and I suppose significant, being so close to the general election! Social mobility and class politics were touched upon enough to make you think, but not enough for the play to feel like a commentary; it left you to make your own decisions and was good enough to leave you with space to think long after the curtain went down.
With Eliza’s ‘common’ accent switched from cockney to northern, it really made me think about not just lower/middle/upper class divides, but north/south divides too, and how they’re all connected, viewed and judged.
The inability for Higgins to see that Doolittle really didn’t have a life to return to after her lessons were over could be attributed to his affluence; since he’s of a different class, he can’t understand why she couldn’t just do as she pleased once free. In reality, she would be humiliatingly thrust back down to the lower classes and back into the gutter.
The set, finally, was mesmerising, with elevated perspex boxes used as living rooms and greenhouses, mobile sound booths, a wooden screen and film projections, as well as minimalist lighting and some rather fabulous leafy wallpaper (where can I get some?!). The set ensured that the performance was experimental, but not too ‘out there’. It was creative, but still easy to follow and understand, and very aesthetically pleasing. I loved the set and the technology used to produce the performance; I also really enjoyed the use of film to show some scenes too.
Sadly, Pygmalion is only on in Southampton until Saturday 13 May. The play is a Headlong, Nuffield Southampton Theatres and West Yorkshire Playhouse co-production, which means it has been on tour, but unfortunately Southampton appears to be its final stop.
So…if you’re local to Southampton and are reading this before the final performance, then I urge you to book your tickets before it’s too late!
If it is too late, then I recommend keeping an eye on Headlong’s productions and co-productions with its partners; I’ve seen a number of plays from the team and each one I have thoroughly enjoyed.
On that note, I’m off to practice my accents and hunt down that fantastic patterned wallpaper.
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