Widowers’ Houses – January 2015

Experience: 7/10

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Paul Miller

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 8th January 2015

First of the year, and it’s another good start at the Orange Tree. We learned from the post-show that this was Shaw’s first play and while it certainly isn’t his finest work, there was a lot to like. Sadly, the theme of slum landlords is still relevant today.

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The Man Of Destiny – February 2014

Experience: 6/10

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Michael Friend

Michael Friend Productions

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 28th February 2014

This little-seen Shaw play was paired with another one-act piece by the same author, The Fascinating Foundling. They were both amusing, and while the Foundling was like a Gilbertian mini-farce, Man Of Destiny had a bit more to it, and we could certainly see the influence of Arms And The Man in the discussions between Napoleon and the Strange Lady. We were glad to have caught this performance, especially as we’re not likely to see these anywhere else.

The set consisted of a wide swathe of green carpet, suggestive of grass, a backdrop showing a large house with one wing coming forward on the left side, a doorway in the appropriate place on that side and a table with two chairs in the middle of the stage; the table was laid with some plates and a glass. There was a bench on the left with a bottle on it and another bench tucked away in the far right corner. I wasn’t sure if the space was indoors or outdoors – the program specifies the courtyard of an inn, which would account for the ambiguity.

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The Doctor’s Dilemma – September 2012


By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Nadia Fall

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th September 2012

I’m going through the annual process of getting my ears syringed, so I decided beforehand that I’d have to put any loss of dialogue down to the cotton-wool effect of the olive oil. As it happened, I found the dialogue very clear throughout, particularly during the second half when my left ear cleared and I could hear very well. The only down side was the couple behind us; coughing is an acceptable sound effect in a play that deals with consumption, but it helps to keep it to the stage. Even so, the performance was very enjoyable and the production better than my experience of it.

The play reminded me of Surprises, in that it presented ideas for the audience to ponder while giving them a fair number of laughs into the bargain. The ideas this time concerned the moral aspects of medical rationing – a very topical subject – and although the stage debates were entertaining, I felt so little sympathy for the artist and his genuine(?) wife that there was no dilemma for me whatsoever. Of course the doctor of the title, the newly knighted Sir Colenso Ridgeon, had more of a problem. A bachelor, he fell in love with Mrs Dubedat as soon as he laid eyes on her. His initial snap decision to help her husband was soon challenged as more information came to light, and then the conflict became complicated by his desire for Mrs Dubedat to become a widow – what should he do?

The decision was never in much doubt despite the pontificating by all and sundry, and so the artist died in serious poverty leaving a number of excellent paintings, a deeply saddened widow and a plethora of debts. The chap who took his place in the drug trial was never seen on stage again either, although his improved health and prosperity were reported to us. The final scene, with Ridgeon attending the first posthumous exhibition of Dubedat’s work, attempted to resolve the play with a confrontation between the remarried widow and Ridgeon, but the arguments were so woolly-headed that they didn’t work for me. Never mind, the cast had built up such a supply of good will during the rest of the play that I didn’t mind the ending, and at least the final scene was short.

The costumes and sets were absolutely fantastic, as befits the National’s workshops. The opening scene was set in Ridgeon’s study, which had as much dark wood and leather as one could wish for, as well as a drinks tray and a wayward housekeeper (Maggie McCarthy) who bossed her employer around as if she were his nanny. His knighthood had just been announced, and various members of the medical profession called by to congratulate him, from fellow knights Sir Patrick Cullen and Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington through some GPs he’d known during training, to the lowest of the low – a surgeon! Mr Cutler Walpole (Robert Portal) was the flashiest of the group, and utterly convinced that everybody who was suffering anything was suffering from blood poisoning and needed their something-or-other sac removed (a spurious anatomical spare part). Mind you, he was doing very well out of it, and we found it very funny as well.

The assembled doctors gave us an insight into the various medical attitudes of the day, and quite a few laughs too. David Calder was great fun as Sir Patrick, an Irish doctor who may well have represented Shaw’s own views in the play. He poked fun at everyone while still having some sensible things to say, and with his advanced years he was able to comment on how the medical fashions came round on a regular basis. Sir Ralph was played by Malcolm Sinclair and this was an excellent performance. A Royal physician, he professed the same cure for everything and by some lucky fluke hadn’t killed off anyone important. His use of Ridgeon’s formula on one of the Princes had coincided with the Prince recovering, which may have led to Ridgeon’s knighthood. His pomposity was leavened by his knowledge of how the establishment worked, and Malcolm Sinclair played him with great authority and impeccable comic timing.

The successful and rich GP was represented by Dr Leo Schutzmacher, played by Paul Herzberg. With his foreign background and slight accent, it was no surprise to find out later that he was Jewish, although I wasn’t aware of that in the first act. He’d settled in a manufacturing town somewhere north of London and made so much money that he could now retire. The other GP, Blenkinsop, was played by Derek Hutchinson, and he represented those doctors who treated ordinary folk, clerks and shop assistants and the like. He couldn’t earn much because his patients couldn’t afford the expensive cures; nor could he, which is why he was suffering from tuberculosis himself as we learned in act two.

Any of these doctors would have put you off going to the medical profession for life. Their silly debates and insistence on unproven remedies, or using proven remedies for every possible ailment, were humorous if worrying. The issue of who to treat – worthy Blenkinsop or unworthy but talented Dubedat – was clouded by their differing approaches to treatment; ultimately it all came down to Ridgeon’s decision, and he chose the ‘worthier’ man. Being fond of art and beautiful things made the decision harder for him, as did his attraction to the artist’s wife, but the choice was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned.

It was good to catch this Shaw play at last – we’d missed earlier productions, and although some of his plays are done regularly (e.g. Pygmalion, Arms And The Man) there can be long gaps between productions of the others (and then three come along at once – if only!). Personally I would prefer to see more of Shaw and less of Chekov, but that’s just me; as I get older the ‘idea’ plays come to be more interesting.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Heartbreak House – August 2012


By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Richard Clifford

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 2nd August 2012

Even though the performances have come on since we saw this last time, I found the experience less enjoyable. I had no expectations previously, so it was a delightful surprise to find myself liking the production very much. This time I may have expected too much, and while the cast had all come on in three weeks, I didn’t find the humour worked so well for me; unlike Wilde’s wit, which can be heard time and again and still be funny, Shaw’s jokes seem to pall with repetition. Still it’s an excellent production of this play, and I’m glad to have seen it.

There were no changes I could see to the set or staging, and the changes to performances were mostly a sharpening up of detail. Fiona Button, who played Ellie Dunn, seemed to have come on the most; her character matured considerably from the start of the play to the last scene.

The ‘strange’ bits I mentioned last time were at the end of each act. The first act ended with Hector, Hesione and Captain Shotover doing a dance and chant near the front of the stage, almost an incantation. The interval was taken after a shot rang out, breaking the second act in two, and the action restarted in the same place. The second act ended with a meaningful line from Hector, while towards the end of the third act the characters simply behaved even more strangely, especially when threatened with a bombing raid. The point was made in the post-show that these people would not have been aware of the sounds of a raid in the way we are now, which is reasonable, but even so their attitudes owe more to Shaw’s desire to put his political ideas before us than any ‘real’ behaviour on their part.

The post-show was very interesting. With such a balanced ensemble, I asked how their sense of equality developed. The director had a major part to play, of course, but the actors all contributed, with egos being noticeably absent. And the fact that Shaw had written ten good parts was a great help. The play’s relevance to today was illustrated by George Layton’s experience of travelling to Chichester this week and seeing lots of people dressed up, drinking champagne, and heading for Glorious Goodwood. As usual, we asked what the theatre was like to perform in, and they made the usual replies (needs a lot vocally, but nice to have the audience wrapped around you, always have your back to someone, etc.). Although the room design kept the action contained in a smaller area, we didn’t feel cut off from the performance, which was good. All the cast had a chance to contribute tonight, another sign of the harmony amongst them, and we went home happy, again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Heartbreak House – July 2012

8/10  (4th Preview)

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Richard Clifford

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 10th July 2012

I’d seen Heartbreak House once before, with Rex Harrison as Captain Shotover, and found it deadly dull, so I had no great hopes for this production despite the excellent casting. I was delighted when the laughs came early and came often, and despite the ‘strange’ bits towards the end of each half, I found the production very light and enjoyable, with tremendous performances from everyone. I suspect the director chose to minimise the heavy political references and make this more of a Wildean romp through the dottiness of the British middle classes; if so, it was a good choice, which allowed the humour to come through and made for a much more accessible and enjoyable production.

The set was wonderful. The room used in the first acts had a long back wall, angled slightly, with a central tall window and two sets of double doors out to the garden on either side. At the far left was another door to the Captain’s secret stash of rum, while the door to the rest of the house was at the other end of the wall, and at right angles to it. A small corridor space away was another door which led to the front of the house.

The room was furnished appropriately for the time, though with a Bohemian flavour. The floorboards were slightly purple (or was that just the lighting?) and laid diagonally. They covered a large square area, with a smaller square off to the left for the Captain’s rum door, and these squares were surrounded by a glossy black area with a few leaves scattered here and there; this became the garden area in the final act. The fireplace was front and centre, with side seats and fire irons, and there were chairs and sofas, chests for tables, and a large drawing table under the central window with a Captain’s chair where Shotover did his design work from time to time.

For the final scene, the wall rotated and we lost the doors on either side. The garden area had a drinks trolley thoughtfully provided in front of the terrace, along with several benches and chairs. To the sides were panels which looked ivy-covered, and above all this were the upper windows of the house, lit during the night time scenes. To the left of the stage was a spot light, which may have been part of the stage lighting, or could even have been the Captain’s idea of garden illumination, such was the bohemian nature of the family. The costumes were all period, and absolutely lovely, especially Hesione’s evening dress.

I was reminded of many other plays and styles during the evening. Wilde obviously, especially in the bright, clever things said by the Hushabyes, Lady Utterwood and Randall Utterwood. The preening of the latter and Hector Hushabye, making full use of the imaginary mirror above the fireplace, was very funny, and also reminiscent of some of Wilde’s characters. Othello was mentioned several times within the dialogue, and King Lear had obvious echoes, with the elderly man and his two ‘dangerous’ daughters. And, written only a few years later, the shambolic treatment of invited guests reminded me strongly of Hay Fever. At least we got to know who was who with the staggered arrivals and repeated introductions, a very useful technique. And with such good characterisations, I found I engaged with the people and the situation much more readily than any tub-thumping production could manage. Derek Jacobi was splendid as Captain Shotover, but the whole cast were magnificent, and as this was only the fourth performance I would expect them to be even better in a short while. The only negatives tonight were some chatter from behind and two short bursts of thunderous rain on the roof which made the dialogue hard to hear, even though the actors upped the volume as much as they could. I hope we get quieter weather next time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Millionairess – September 2008


By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Michael Friend

Company: Michael Friend Productions

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 5th September 2008

The set for the first scene comprised a green baize floor, several straight-backed chairs, with three in a row along the back, a desk to our right with a telephone and box file, and behind it was a part wall with a window made up of small panes. The only other thing I could see at the start was a big wastepaper basket under the desk. This was the office of a solicitor called Sagamore, and he was visited in the opening scene by a series of people whose lives were intertwined. The first was Epifania, a rich heiress, who nevertheless considered herself a pauper. Her father had been worth over 100 million pounds, but lost a lot of his money before he died, so she was left a measly 30 million pounds. Enough for most people, but a real come-down for her.

She’s totally spoilt, but savvy about money, and she wanted to make her will before committing suicide. Sagamore made no pretence to know anything, but managed to persuade her to give up her plan to kill herself by giving her explicit instructions on how to make a lethal cyanide potion. Her husband Alistair and his preferred woman, Patricia, arrived and join in the discussion, if I can call it that, followed by one of Epifania’s favourite’s, Adrian. The scene unfolded in an erratic way, as most of the characters ended up forgetting what they came to see Sagamore about originally.

Not that that was a problem for us. We learned about the reason why Epifania married Alistair, and why she was determined to kill herself and curse him by leaving him all her money. Her father, whom she totally revered, told her to test any man who wanted to marry her, in order to weed out undesirables. She was to give them two hundred and fifty pounds, and tell them to come back in six months with fifty thousand. Some had tried and failed, some had refused even to try, but Alistair, a good looking boxing champ who also played tennis, managed it. Unfortunately, he did it through a con, and as they spent more time together it became very clear that they were not at all compatible, although his good looks and her money obviously helped. He took to seeing Patricia, and Epifania spent a lot of time with Adrian, although it might be more accurate to say he spent time with her, as he liked his meals and she had a very good cook.

The con that Alistair used wasn’t entirely clear to me, but it seemed to involve writing cheques for money that Alistair and his partner-in-crime didn’t have, then writing more duff cheques to cover those, until the money started rolling in and they could cover all their initial outlay easily. Their project was putting a musical on the London stage, and, miraculously, they managed to find one that made money. Not as easy as you might think, looking at the West End listings nowadays. Anyway, that’s how Alistair got fifty thousand together in such a short time, although if he and his partner had been caught out, he’d have been in jail for a long time. One other thing we found out was that Epifania was a judo expert, and that Alistair had punched her in the solar plexus in self defence after she attacked him.

The second scene was set in a tatty pub, the Pig and Whistle. The wall and windows were moved over to our left, and turned round to reveal the pub sign and a seat underneath the window. The table was brought back on with a cloth, and another chair completed the setup. Adrian threw a minor strop because the food wasn’t too good, and Epifania used her judo skills to throw him down the stairs. This led to her meeting with an Egyptian doctor, a Muslim, or Mohammedan as they were then called, who works in a hospital in order to earn just enough money so that he can treat poor Muslims for free. She took a fancy to him, but it turns out his mother, on her death bed, made him promise to set a test for any woman who wanted to marry him. He was to give her 200 piastres (about 35 shillings), and with only that and the clothes she stood up in, she would have to make her own living for six months. Epifania accepted the challenge – she had to get her chauffeur to sub them both – and was confident that she’ll succeed. (The chauffeur had just returned from taking Adrian to the local cottage hospital, so that his injuries could be treated.)

The third scene, immediately after the interval, showed us the workshop of a couple who were employing a bunch of women at sweatshop wages making clothes. Epifania wants a job, but at first they took her for an inspector, and offered to pay her two and six a week if she left them alone. She was willing to take their money, although she bargained the price up to five bob, but when she found out how the system worked – a lorry brought them cloth and took away the finished goods – she realised she could buy out the middlemen and the business could start making some real money. The wife didn’t want anything to do with her new-fangled ideas, but the husband, possibly because he was used to being bossed about by strong women, decided to take the risk. From Epifania’s behaviour, it’s clear she learned a lot from her father, and she certainly knew her employment law. We could be confident that she’d change their fortunes before the play was out. She reckoned she only needed to spend an afternoon a week with them, so she set off to get a paying job for the rest of the week – a scullery maid at an hotel, for example.

The final scene was back at the pub six months later, only this time it was called something different (The Cardinal’s Hat?) and looked a lot posher. Alistair and Patricia were staying for a holiday, and asked the hotel manageress what had caused the changes to the place. She told them the following story. Her parents and grandparents, going back generations, had always run the pub on old-fashioned lines, and although it suited them, she felt it was too seedy for her taste. One day, about six months earlier, a woman had turned up and insisted on becoming a scullery maid with them. On her first day, she broke several plates, and the mother had complained. The scullery maid went off somewhere and came back with a whole service of beautiful plates, for next to nothing. From then on, she gradually took over the place, suggesting improvements, changing the décor, the clientele, and finally buying the manageress’s parents out altogether. They were able to retire, but at a price, with one of them having had a stroke, and both of them missing the way things used to be. She stayed on as manageress, and was really happy with the ways things were now. She let slip the name of the new boss, and yes, you’ve guessed it, it was Epifania. Alistair was horrified, and wanted to leave immediately, but Patricia calmed him down, and the manageress insisted that Epifania was rarely there these days. However, two other guests did turn up. One was Adrian, finally able to get about again after the most appalling problems with his various treatments, and the other was Sagamore.

Despite the manageress’s assurance, Epifania did indeed turn up, as we knew she would. It’s time for her to meet up with the doctor, who was also there but was shown up after all the other guests. At first Epifania was threatening to sue Patricia for taking her husband away – alienating his affections – but Patricia manageed to defeat that by pointing out that as she has no money, Epifania wouldn’t be able to get any from her, and she’d be only too happy to declare her love for Alistair publicly, so that people could see that she’d taken such an attractive and successful man from the richest woman in Europe. Backed up by Sagamore’s astute observations on the futility of such an action, and her own vanity, Epifania gave way, but then turned her attention to the doctor. She told him of her success, and he tried to counter with the story of his abysmal failure. He took the money and gave it to the widow of his old mentor, a chap who developed some technical thingummyjig which he didn’t patent, and so now private companies were making lots of money from it. He negotiated with these companies to give the old woman a pension, but with the costs of the funeral, the old dear was two hundred and fifty pounds short, hence the gift. Epifania counters this by reckoning that with the invention making so much money, she could consider the gift as a retrospective investment in the development of the whatever, so he’s actually passed the test. To the doctor’s own amazement, he realised he may have to marry her after all. However he did have one consolation. When he first got there, he checked her pulse, and found it to be one of the strongest he’d ever known. So wonderful was this pulse that he found it seductive in the extreme. At least he’ll get to feel it every day once they’re married.

This was a hugely enjoyable play, wordy, as with so many of Shaw’s, but with lots of good lines, and some interesting observations on the social conditions of the time. I don’t know how far into their tour this was, but there were a few fluffed lines, so I assume it’s early rather than late. I was very impressed with the performances, which seemed of a pretty high standard, and despite the low budget, the set and costumes were very effective. I wasn’t sure at first if Amanda Sterkenburg was putting on an accent as Epifania, but from her CV she’s Dutch, so I guess that was either her basic accent, or a general European one. I don’t remember if we’re told where Epifania comes from originally, but there are a number of references to her being European, and she reminded me a lot of Bluntschli from Arms and the Man, the Swiss hotelier. Like him, she has a clear-eyed view of the world and tremendous organisational skills, though I don’t think he was quite as enamoured with money as she is.

We had a good time, and would certainly see other productions by this company, as well as other productions of this play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Saint Joan -September 2007


By: George Bernard Shaw

Directed by: Marianne Elliot

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 25th September 2007

This was an amazing production. At first, I wasn’t sure if I would take to it, but once I got used to the style being used, I became completely enthralled, and cried buckets. It’s as if, finally, we’re starting to get enough distance from Shaw to do proper modern productions, without the concern for his detailed stage directions and vision. This was such a contemporary version, that both Steve and I felt the dialogue had been updated – it seemed so modern.

The set was reminiscent of the Romeo and Juliet directed by Nancy Meckler as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival. There was a square raised area in the centre of the stage, sloping slightly from back to front, and around the back of the stage were blasted tree trunks at various angles. Otherwise, the stage seemed completely bare. A stack of chairs stood on the platform, all piled up higgledy-piggledy, and the opening to the play had a number of the cast (there was one woman and about twenty men) come on from the back in slow motion, and gradually unpack the chairs. They stood for a moment at the back, doing what looked like tai chi hand movements – don’t know what that was meant to represent – then a number went round the sides of the platform and stood there, while others got onto the platform and passed chairs down to them. All of this was done in slow motion, very gracefully, almost balletic, and all the while there was haunting music filling the space. There was also a woman’s voice, with a song that was somewhat medieval, somewhat religious, somewhat folk music.

Given the staging, I wasn’t surprised to find the chairs being slammed down onto the stage from time to time – in similar vein to the poles in Romeo and Juliet – as a stylised form of combat. At one point, a chair had taken too much punishment and disintegrated, having to be carried off in pieces by the actor.

Almost forgot – at the very start, there was a church cross on a pole at the back of the stage, and some chap took it off. OK, so there we were with two rows of chaps on either side of the platform, holding chairs, and obviously going to slam them down all at the same time, which they did. I had hoped this would lead us straight into the wonderful opening line – one of the best in all drama – but there was more slow-motion stuff as the stage was prepared. When we did finally get “No eggs!”, there wasn’t much energy around to give it any punch, which I do feel is a waste. I also found it distracting to have all the other actors standing around, or sitting, as the scenes were acted on the platform. The slow motion was also used a lot, as characters would suddenly “go slow” as they left the platform, and either stand still waiting for their next entrance, or walk off very slowly. At first this was distracting, then the play started to work its magic, and I found it all helped to build a superb atmosphere.

The platform in the middle also showed more flexibility than I expected. I thought it might be a bit dull having such a sparse set, but as the scenes changed, the platform rotated (on the revolve) and later rose up, to create a slope for the walls of Orleans, and a lean-to effect behind the political discussion between the English and the Catholic Church’s representative. For some scenes, the revolve was slow but continuous, creating interesting changes of perspective throughout the scene.

All the performances were terrific. Anne-Marie Duff was a great Joan. She gave us the wilfulness and naivety along with her courage and absolute faith in her connection to God through her voices. This only wavered when she was confronted with the horror of being burned at the stake, and her fear of physical pain came to the fore. Her renewal of her faith once she realises she could be kept a prisoner for the rest of her life was very moving, and I sobbed. (Actually, I sobbed many times during the performance, this was only one of them.) I was very aware of the fact that there were no other women on the stage, and that hers was a lone voice speaking up against the dogmatism of learned men, some honourable, some not, but all out of touch with the reality of Spirit. In some ways I’m amazed at the marvellous lines Shaw gives Joan and the other characters. I’ve not always thought of Shaw as the greatest observer of human nature – good, but not the greatest – but here he showed such compassion and balance in the writing that I may have to consider this his masterpiece.

Other performances I want to mention include Michael Thomas, Angus Wright and Paterson Joseph as the three plotters who perhaps contribute the most to Joan’s downfall. Michael Thomas plays the Chaplain de Stogumber, Angus Wright plays the Earl of Warwick, and Paterson Joseph plays the Bishop of Beauvais. The chaplain seems to be anti everything – a Daily Mail reader, but with more right-wing views. His character gets to express straightforward anti-Semitism in a way that would be virtually impossible in a modern play, but in this context it simply shows what sort of ideas these people had. The Earl of Warwick is educated, but doesn’t let that stand in his way. He’s a political animal, looking for the best solution for English interests, and prepared to make a pact with the devil if that will do the job. He generally smoothes over the feathers ruffled by his outspoken chaplain, but is capable of ruffling a few himself. The Bishop is concerned for the Church’s position, and also for Joan’s soul, but as the Church’s position has often relied upon political manoeuvring, he and the Earl can come to an accommodation. The discussion among these characters was fascinating and showed understandable motivations for the aspects of society they represent. They’re not villains, but they are dangerous if you’re on the “wrong” side.

Finally, Paul Ready as the Dauphin was wonderfully pouty and reluctant, a spoilt royal brat with no interest in taking charge. Unfortunately, when he finally does, it’s to renounce Joan and her advice, so he’s obviously not much good at gratitude either.

The production includes a final scene that I don’t remember from before, but that may just be my bad memory. After she’s been killed, all those involved reappear and discuss their parts in her killing. Some have changed their minds about her, some haven’t. She confronts them, and gradually they all head off, leaving her alone on stage. She also leaves, and we see the opening process of unstacking chairs gone through again, leading right up to the opening of the play, but stopping before the first line.

This is of course suggestive of a repeating cycle, but here I found it inappropriate, as I don’t see Joan’s story as cyclical. Aspects of what happened on stage are constantly recurring, but I didn’t feel the repetition angle was justified by what we’d seen. I was very aware how dangerous dogma can be, especially when people see being different as being wrong. I also felt that somehow France wasn’t in as much danger once the Dauphin had been crowned, that the men who were now in charge would sort things out, eventually, and that they were very concerned to do that themselves, not with the help of a gurl. In fact, perhaps the contrast between then and now in terms of how women are treated, is what makes me feel there isn’t a repeating cycle. The misogyny expressed so clearly would be less likely today, with so much attention to political correctness, however much it may still lurk beneath the surface. I see the relevance of this story to today more in standing up to authority according to the dictates of your heart. Comparisons of Joan to modern-day terrorists seem to miss the point of the play – she was right, and history appears to have vindicated her.

Most of all, I liked this production because it seems to be the first to really shake off the Shavian legacy, and present the play just as a play. I hope to see more such productions, although how well they’ll respond to such treatment remains to be seen.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Pygmalion – September 2007


By: George Bernard Shaw

Directed by: Peter Hall

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 3rd September 2007

This was a superb production. All the performances were excellent, the set and costumes were good, and the audience was appreciative. A very good night out.

Favourite bits include Barbara Jefford as Mrs Higgins desperately trying to think of something to say when Eliza calls on her “at home”. She struggled for a long time, before falling back on the old standby, the weather. Her performance was a good foil to Tim Pigott-Smith as Henry Higgins; she was sensible, concerned for Eliza’s future, and capable of handling difficult social situations with courtesy and aplomb, so unlike her son, who was a truculent, bad-mannered bully, and whose only saving graces were his intelligence and a sort of kindness. It was interesting to see how the humour most often came from the outrageous comments he, and occasionally Colonel Pickering, made. Only their complete innocence of any wrongdoing made them funny instead of repulsive.

Tony Haygarth as Alfred Doolittle was another little gem. He rattled the lines off so quickly that at first I couldn’t make him out too well, but I soon picked it up. He gave us all we could want from this character, and I quite understand why Higgins and the Colonel were willing to give him ten pounds instead of five. Actually, Higgins was willing to give away ten pounds of the Colonel’s money, but let’s not split hairs.

I also enjoyed Una Stubbs as the housekeeper, Mrs Pearce, and the two leads were just excellent, both in terms of their own performances, and in the balance between the two. Michelle Dockery played Eliza as more independent in the beginning, less prone to crying than I’ve seen before, but that’s just a matter of interpretation – the character was still clear, and the accents seemed fine to me. I loved her poise when she came to visit Mrs Higgins for the first time, and finished her speech about the weather – she clearly let out a sigh of relief that she’d got through it OK. The contrast between her appearance and what she was saying was just superb, and the reactions of the others added to the fun. With My Fair Lady being so well known, it’s easy to forget just how well the original is written, with lots of social commentary along the way, such as the new style of speaking that the youngsters have taken to.

Tim Pigott-Smith was just about perfect as Henry Higgins. He was completely taken up with his own concerns, and just did not understand how he was affecting others, especially Eliza. Time and again he came out with the most inconsiderate statements, often digging a deeper hole for himself as he went along, but he always got away with it. His dedication to his work and his openness to new ideas made him more attractive than he had any right to expect. He was also suitably petulant at his mother’s house – a spoilt little mummy’s boy who never grew up.

I felt the ending was rather ambiguous this time. Although it appears Eliza has left for good, I’m not entirely convinced she won’t change her mind. Either way, seeing the proper story again (Peter Hall had dropped a scene written for the 1938 film) was great fun, and reminded me that Shaw could write about real people when he wanted to.

The opening scene was set in the portico of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, and was a bit too darkly lit for my taste. I had difficulty making out all that was going on, although on the whole it worked well. The changes of set took a while, but were worth it – the laboratory and drawing-room were very well designed, and gave me a strong sense of place and time.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me