In Bernard Shaw’s 1916 play, Professor of Phonetics Henry Higgins bets his friend he can turn Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a RP-speaking lady in six months. The story may be better known for the musical version based upon it, My Fair Lady, but in this production of the original play the Peter Hall company shows that the trappings of a musical are not needed to bring out the entertainment value of this classic story.
Simon Higlett’s imposing set opens the play in an atmospheric Edwardian-era Covent Garden, London, where flower girl Eliza is selling her wares to society gentlemen awaiting their taxis home from the opera. Her Cockney accent and uncouth demeanour are noticed with fascination by Henry Higgins, for whom language is his profession. Soon after, Eliza seeks his help to curb her free flowing speech into the conventions of a lady in order to bag herself a proper job in a florist shop. Higgins, spurred on by the experiment she presents, takes on the job as a bet with his colleague in language studies, Colonel Pickering.
In Michelle Dockery, director Hall has found an Eliza who embraces all the rainbow colours of Eliza with equal verve. As a lowly flower girl she is brash and vivid, capturing both the unkempt mannerisms and the amusingly untamed mouth of this ill-educated yet fiercely independent and proud young woman. Later, Dockery takes us through Eliza’s transformation: at first, the vocal veneer that Higgins has taught her cannot disguise her years on the corner of Tottenham Court Road; then, winning Higgins’s bet, she feels trapped by the superficiality of her new pronunciation, until, finally, she finds a balance between the person she was and the one she has become.
Tim Pigott-Smith gives us a Henry Higgins who may be grammatically correct, but whose disregard for polite society and the feelings of others makes him no more of a gentleman than if he had grown up in Eliza’s “deliciously low” world. Slouching about his professor’s lair in baggy trousers and a distinctly unwashed cardigan, Higgins cuts a shabby figure next to his partner in experimentation, the gentlemanly Pickering (James Laurenson). In the company of his mother (an entertaining Barbara Jefford) and her society friends, he is no more than a petulant child
But while Eliza is capable of being transformed, Higgins is so determinedly stuck in his uncouth ways that he cannot change himself. A perhaps more satisfactory resolution to Shaw’s story would be to see Higgins forced to receive a taste of his own medicine. Instead this sad, crumpled figure is left with only himself for company as Eliza bravely starts her new life.