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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Old Vic Theatre      Summer 2008

You know, My Fair Lady without the songs.

Actually, the musical followed George Bernard Shaw's dialogue so closely in some scenes that you'll keep hearing what sound like music cues, and it's a bit disorienting to not have them lead into songs.

But get past it - the original play is itself a total delight, and this production as close to ideal as you have any right to hope for.

(Does anyone need a reminder? Language expert bets he can pass a Cockney flower girl off as a lady, just by changing her accent.)

Shaw himself said 'There must be something radically wrong about the play if it pleases everybody,' and if forced to make some criticism about Peter Hall's production, I'd have to admit it is just a little mushy at the centre, playing for sweetness and softening some of Shaw's acerbic characterisations.

For example, Tim Pigott-Smith gets one essential part of Higgins exactly right, to great comic effect - the man's total lack of self-awareness.

He simply doesn't know when he's being boorish, or rude, or cruel, or over-exuberant, so he does these things with a kind of innocence (and bewilderment when he's criticised for them) that is consistently funny.

Now, imagine for a moment a Higgins who was vaguely aware when he was being unsociable and simply didn't care, and you can see that a slightly sharper edge to the character could still be funny but carry a little more weight.

In the final scene of the play, when Eliza stands up to him, part of Higgins is delighted by her strength and independence - and it would have been nice if Pigott-Smith had given us some hint of that side of him earlier.

As Eliza, Michelle Dockery is lovely, gets the comedy spot-on, and is touching and vulnerable in the sad scenes.

Her great moment comes in the transformed Eliza's first public appearance, visiting Mrs. Higgins. Dockery shows us, to great comic effect, all the terror in Eliza's eyes as she hears the unaccustomed sounds coming out of her mouth.

But, perhaps because Pigott-Smith doesn't give her enough to bounce off, her last-act debate with Higgins doesn't flash as brilliantly as it could.

But those are cavils. If we assume that no perfect production exists -and Shaw complained all his life of actors softening his two central characters - as much of the play's delight as you are ever likely to find is here.

The role of Eliza's father was written to steal his two big scenes, and Tony Haygarth walks away with them as simply the best Doolittle imaginable. James Laurenson makes an amiable Pickering, Barbara Jefford a strong no-nonsense Mrs. Higgins, and Una Stubbs a surprisingly and delightfully feisty housekeeper.

If this revival is a little more polite than Shaw might have intended, if it occasionally ambles when it could have cantered, it is still great fun.

Gerald Berkowitz

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