Just you wait for me blooming exotic verbals

Shaw said that the integrated text of his five-act Eliza Doolittle romance and the 1938 film version could only be performed in the cinema or 'on stages furnished with exceptionally elaborate machinery'.

The RNT's Pygmalion in the Olivier fits the bill: William Dudley's ambitiously uneven designs transport us from a rainswept Covent Garden church portico to the Wimpole Street phoneticians' den (replete with phonographs, wax cylinders and a trumpet-tubed organ), across a raised bridge and a palm court orchestra at the Embassy ball, and to Mrs Higgins's exotic garden flat on the Chelsea Embankment.

There are other surprises: Eliza's bath is administered in full view by an alert, rather than fussing, Mrs Pearce (Alison Fiske); the more traditional attempted exposure of Eliza by Higgins's Hungarian protégé Neppomuck is incorporated (with the ballroom scene) from the film; there are minor additions from the 1913 first draft.

These new connections - some were aired at the Glasgow Citizens in 1979 - are given resonance by the triumphant reinstatement of Alan Howard, whose uncle Leslie played suavely opposite Wendy Hiller in the film, as Higgins.

Howard strikes to the moody, ethereal heart of Higgins and gives us one of his major poetic performances. His ear for nuances of dialogue is comically balanced against his myopic relationship with furniture and other peoples' feelings.

And in partnering him with Frances Barber as Eliza, director Howard Davies has struck gold. Their last long scene, played in a twisting skein of self-deception, emotional confusion and bitter acceptance, rounds off a notable duet, whose sonic features are his casual, flicking airiness and her squall of catty squeals.

Howard, abetted by Robin Bailey's ruby-rich vowelled Pickering, withstands Barber's assaults with the mellifluous springiness of a fine old concertina. And Barber stiffens to a very funny, perfectly timed moving statue at the trial tea party before embarking on her elegant physical and spiritual transformation. The range of her performance, vocally and intellectually, marks the highest achievement of her career since the RSC Camille.

Michael Coveney

Observer, 12.4.92.


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