Pygmalion bills itself as a ‘Romantic Comedy’. Indeed, it has many of the ingredients for one; struggling heroine, her two potential male counterparts (equally unsuitable and unattractive in their own way), the social minefield of post-Edwardian London as the backdrop… However, the ideas which drive the play are prosaic and philosophical, dictating the existence of tensions far greater than those suggested by the rather facetious premise of a romantic comedy. The energy with which Ashley Wheeler and Philippa Baines’ production approaches these tensions invigorates a script which leans towards the theoretical rather than the dramatic.
As the press preview began with Mr Doolittle (Oliver Johnson) gleefully propounding his existence near the bottom of the social ladder -’I’m undeservin’, and I mean to go on bein’ undeservin’’- it immediately appeared that elaborate characterisation is all the sugar-coating needed to engage an audience with the bitter concepts of class prejudice and female independence. Well before the performance date, this scene already enjoys a contrast between the mannerisms of Doolittle and his daughter Eliza (Ella Waldman), and the inhabitants of Higgins’ (Dylan Townley) household. Higgins and Pickering (Alex Mills) watch with a mixture of sardonic amusement and round-eyed incredulity respectively as Doolittle gesticulates his way through his speech, while a reassuringly demure Mrs Pearce (Lily Levinson) provides a foil for Eliza, who wipes her nose on her sleeve with gusto seconds after arriving onstage.
Waldman’s performance promises to be all the better for forsaking any attempt to prettify Eliza; her expressions hint at the existence of the same ‘Eliza’ throughout, perhaps most in evidence during Higgins’ phonetics lesson, in which the letters of the alphabet come out in a constipated fury, as much at odds with her metamorphosis as with the meaninglessness of the letter sounds. The venom with which she purses her lips as Doolittle departs reappears in full force when she reflects on the bitterness of her situation, or rather her lack of one, as the social veneer Higgins has grafted onto her prevents her from earning her own living, while her economic status demands it. When Mrs Higgins (Rebekah Diamond) despairingly remarks that ‘talking about our insides’ or ‘outsides’ is simply unbearable during tea, she encapsulates the chief problem in Pygmalion; can either of the two facets of the play ever be truly separated or altered to an extent where one no longer poses a detriment to the other?
Certainly, the jangling, heart-in-mouth, physically cringing portrayal of Freddie’s attachment to Eliza by Sam Plumb contributes to a reassuring sense of love’s independence of the play’s more intellectual concerns; love even permeates the post-ball clash with Higgins, though Townley achieves an appropriate level of obliviousness. However it is an undeniable presence, rather than the order of the day; in this production of Pygmalion it is no more reassuring than Pickering’s attempts to pacify Eliza –’I promise you I won’t let Higgins drag you round the room by your hair!’
It is this sensitivity to the multi-dimensionality of the characters which makes this production exciting. I arrived with misgivings about its suitability as a garden show, which precludes easy conjuring up of the distinctive London aesthetic from which it is impossible to divorce the text, but these were instantly eclipsed (if not resolved) by committed and engaging performances all-round, indicative of a truly exciting production come third week.