Review: Pygmalion (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, March 22)

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We’ve grown accustomed to his plays – and with Pygmalion most audiences will be more familiar with George Bernard Shaw’s masterwork through Lerner and Loewe’s brilliant musical version, My Fair Lady.

First seen in London 100 years ago this year, Shaw’s transformation story about a Cockney flower girl plucked from her station at Covent Garden by a phonetics professor eager to soften her accent and introduce her to high society is probably his best-loved work.

The spectre of the musical will always hover over any production of the original play, so it’s a brave company that seeks to reclaim the powerful message and content of Shaw’s dramatic offering and it’s good to report that the touring version at Brighton this week has many strong points.

Shaw originally subtitled the play “a romance in five acts” but he intended that the real undercurrent of the piece was a sharp poke at Britain’s antiquated class system and Eliza’s emancipation from overbearing male influence to a state of confident independence.

So it is particularly pleasing in this production, directed admirably by David Grindley, that the best performance comes from relative newcomer Rachel Barry as Eliza Doolittle. It is a gift of a role, but all too easily overplayed, and Rachel grasps the part and takes centre stage immediately with finesse and great comic timing. Here, her transformation from a common flower seller with spirit and character into a less attractive, though no less spirited, genteel lady seems cruel and the hurt felt by the metamorphosis is portrayed sympathetically and effectively.

The unpleasantness of a girl having her natural independence ripped from her is underlined by Alistair McGowan’s Henry Higgins and Paul Brightwell’s Colonel Pickering – both perfectly adequate, but appearing like naughty schoolboys entering into a jolly prank as they plan their wager to better Eliza. McGowan makes Higgins almost unlikeable, a crisp and tweedy phonetics enthusiast with few social graces, and a childish petulance (especially when reprimanded by his astute mother, played beautifully by a stately Rula Lenska) that occasionally diminishes Shaw’s mature hero.

Jamie Foreman blasts his way perfectly into the role of Alfred Doolittle, the dustman with an unexpected flair for rhetoric and social observation, a real scoundrel but lovable for his honesty, and there’s some nice support from Anna O’Grady, Jane Lambert, and Lewis Collier as the bemused Eynsford-Hills and Charlotte Page as housekeeper Mrs Pearce.

Adding considerably to the overall feel of the production are Jonathan Fensom’s beautiful set and costume design and Jason Taylor’s evocative lighting.

As the play celebrates its centenary this production gives it a contemporary edge, with the story – especially of liberation and independence with no happy ending – having a real 21st Century relevance and humanity.