Transformation and ambiguity in Pygmalion at the Theatre Royal Brighton

“Think Pygmalion, don’t think My Fair Lady.

As director David Grindley – who trained at Chichester Festival Theatre – points out, there is a world of difference between the two.

David’s production of the Shaw classic Pygmalion is at the Theatre Royal Brighton this week (March 17-22) as part of a national tour, starring Alistair McGowan as Henry Higgins.

“For me, the play is a play about transformation,” says David. But not just the obvious transformation of the street girl who becomes the duchess, interesting though it is.

“She goes from being powerless to walking out at the end fully empowered as the embodiment of the suffragette.”

But just as importantly, the piece is about the transformation of Higgins himself: “He goes from being this rather emotionally-remote rational human being to becoming someone discovering how important other human beings are.

“That’s the ambiguity at the end. He appears to be quite happy to let her go at the end, but at the same time we realise the loss that her going is occasioning him. It is not a romantic story, but just about two people, one discovering her own potential, the other discovering the importance of other people.”

David is delighted to have Alistair on board, not simply for the huge comic ability he brings, but also because he is embracing a character who is not easy to play. As David says, Alistair has to make Higgins abrasive to start with: “And that presents a difficult because obviously you are risking alienating the audience – something that Alistair is showing he is prepared to do.”

For David, the Brighton dates are a happy return to the coast, not far from Chichester where he enjoyed one of the great formative experiences of his early career.

The first turning point was a stint at Edinburgh; next came a crucial spell in Chichester from 1996-98, first under artistic director Duncan Weldon and then under Andrew Welch.

“I had two years with Duncan, when I assisted 14 directors. I toured the country with (CFT) shows, and I went into the West End with them, and then when Andrew took over late in the day, with not much time to get the season together, I did Loot in the Minerva.”

Among the stand-out experiences were working on Uncle Vanya with Derek Jacobi, Trevor Eve and Imogen Stubbs, and also importantly with Peggy Mount.

Working alongside Dawn French on When We Were Married and Zoe Wanamaker on Elektra are also happy memories – as was David’s own production of Loot which, after success in the Minerva, went on tour.

“There was not much time or money, and we had to cast the Minerva from people that were on the main-house stage.

“The cast came from the production of Saturday, Sunday... And Monday. As a result, we had very little choice over who we had, but we were so lucky that in fact we got the perfect cast.”