Fresh and bubbling after 80 years, this champagne serving from Shaw

What a surprise, what a treat, what a privilege to enjoy a new play by that clever, mischievous Mr Shaw!

Yes, yes, his bitter-sweet variation on a Greek legend and the Cinderella fairy tale, rising 80 years old, is no newcomer.

But Howard Davies's bubbling revival erases any hint of seen-it-before, know-the-ending staleness, making even That Film - most people's first and last experience of the piece - irrelevant.

Afternoon tea at Mrs Higgins's

And Alan Howard's Higgins, dreamer rather than bully - an abstracted master of scholarly revels with a touch of Prospero taken aback by a pretty Caliban - introduces an alternative definitive Professor to stand alongside Rex Harrison's.

Where to start, in finding reasons to send you to a discovery of the season? Well, it's terrific value on several levels, not least as a spectacle.

William Dudley frames upwardly-mobile Eliza's progress in a series of hugely detailed, deceptively solid sets, from a towering Covent Garden colonnade to a ballroom complete with Palm Court orchestra - throwing in a vintage taxi for Eliza to ride in triumph.

Then there are the players, a cast of a great many, if not all the talents. Howard is excellent, and while Frances Barber's Cockney Eliza is little more than a stereotype, she matures into a gorgeous and touching later version, who had me nearly weeping with laughter by the time her cut-glass consonants and cathedral-vault vowels decorated the notorious 'not bloody likely' bombshell. Robin Bailey as a dry, beautifully-judged Colonel Pickering and Michael Bryant as a cheerily venal, unusually likeable Mr Doolittle, add performances to savour. Showpieces and all, it is an ensemble, however.

There is so much fun to be had out of ingenious scenery and effects, and champagne acting, that it would be easy to mistake Pygmalion for sheer entertainment with a spice of astringent comment on snobbery, love and human nature in general. But Ms Barber lets us see Eliza's heart as well as her comic side, and Howard as her mentor is so obviously blind to the pain he inflicts on her that one winces for the pair of them and finds substance beneath the social comedy froth.

Here is Shaw de luxe, Shaw for people who hate Shaw or revere him.

Either way, you'll be the poorer for ignoring this triumphant pouring of fresh wine from an old magnum.

Shaun Usher

Daily Mail, 10.4.92.


Back to Pygmalion page