Bernard Shaw’s play about class snobbery returns to the West End, with Kara Tointon as the flower girl taken on as a phonetics project by Rupert Everett’s Henry Higgins.
Philip Prowse, who both designs and directs this Chichester Festival Theatre production, has created an intricate, ornate set which morphs swiftly from Covent Garden to Higgins’s book-strewn study to his mother’s marbled parlour. Each of the main characters is master of its own domain: Eliza in Covent Garden, where she begs the moneyed visitors to the Royal Opera House to buy her flowers; Higgins in his study, where his books and recordings are as essential as his slippers and his long-suffering housekeeper; and Mrs Higgins in her parlour, where she dispenses words of wisdom as straight-forward and practical as her wallpaper is not. But when the characters venture into each other’s worlds, each must learn to deal with the difficulties they bring.
Making her debut on the London stage, Tointon is a vibrant and radiant Eliza, mastering the arch of accents that sees her change from coarse Cockney to over-egged linguistic machine to, finally, a naturally well-spoken young lady who has learnt more than she expected. There is more than a little Audrey Hepburn in Tointon, especially in the clipped consonants of her final accent, but also in her mix of feisty defiance and vulnerability.
As Higgins, Everett brings a dark, rakish edge to the character, revelling in his arrogance and single-mindedness and making his neglect of Eliza’s feelings almost intentionally cruel rather than simply unthinking. At one point he grasps her by the jaw and checks her teeth and eyes as though she was a dog at Crufts rather than a human being. By contrast, his friend and collaborator Colonel Pickering (Peter Eyre) is mellow and kind. While still oblivious to the feelings of their ‘project’, he has a naturally sympathetic nature that means we – and Eliza – forgive him his shortcomings.
Perhaps in making Higgins such an unsympathetic character who fails to redeem himself, Everett highlights Bernard Shaw’s feminist tendencies. Though Eliza’s fate as a new lady means she has lost some of her independence, there is a real defiance in her final decision. She has been helped to that decision by Mrs Higgins, whom Diana Rigg depicts as self-assured, even-tempered and far wiser than the rude, issue-ridden son she has produced.
Indeed Everett’s arguments for Eliza to return to his home hold no sway when spoken from the mouth of such a mean, hard person. As he is left sitting on his own at the end of the play, he doesn’t provoke one iota of sympathy.