It’s a story we all know – probably thanks to Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison’s musical retelling in My Fair Lady – but seeing the story as it was first intended says a lot more about the author, the socially minded son of a singer, as well as making for an evening of top quality theatre.
Rachel Barry tackles brilliantly the dual role of grubby, shrill-voiced urchin Eliza and the clever, independent woman she becomes. There’s great comedy in her expressions, and an endearing charm in her raw naivety as she declares her mistrust of looking glasses and pyjamas.
Her imperfect hero is self-obsessed, self-assured bachelor Henry Higgins, played with command and charisma by Alistair McGowan. An Olivier Award nominee for his role in Little Shop of Horrors, this performance, which paints Higgins as both master of his art and sulky spoilt child, is further proof that there’s much more to his talents than impressions and stand-up.
It’s clear that Higgins has met his match in Eliza, who scolds him for not behaving like a gentleman, and the pair bicker like a married couple. Incidentally, however, Shaw’s preferred ending is adhered to despite, perhaps, the will of the audience. Yet the stronger focus on Eliza’s independence, rather than the love story, has merits too and feels unexpectedly but admirably modern, written as it was before women had the right to vote.
The interplay between Eliza and Higgins, which almost inevitably shows Higgins up as an unseeing, stubborn nincompoop, is a delight to watch and packs some great laughs – even though their arguments do go on a little longer than dramatically necessary, without always being resolved. On the other hand, the transition stage from flower girl to society lady is passed over quickly, without ceremony – a shame, perhaps.
The whole thing is beautifully acted, with wonderful comic turns from Jamie Foreman as dustman Alfred Doolittle, St Neots-born Rula Lenska as Henry’s wise, ladylike mother and Charlotte Page as prim housekeeper Mrs Pearce. An impressive set and wardrobe completes the picture.
Funny, smart and populated by some of the most deservedly memorable characters in drama, this loyal adaptation has plenty to say, and does so with great style and lightness of touch. As Higgins points out, it’s not only how you speak, but what you speak – and this charming play succeeds on both counts.