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The Theatreguide.London Review

Garrick Theatre      Summer 2011

Those who know it only through My Fair Lady are always surprised and delighted to discover what a sharp and hard-edged social comedy Shaw’s play is. 

And enough of its fun and intellectual power come through in Philip Prowse’s revival to satisfy most, except perhaps those who know that the play could be even sharper than Prowse’s somewhat sentimental and soft-centred vision allows it to be. 

What is brilliant about Shaw is that the play is not really about the flowergirl-to-lady transformation of Liza Doolittle, but about all the questions of class, manners, sexual politics and economic realities that it raises – questions Shaw typically addresses directly through intellectually stimulating and wittily-expressed debates.

It is just this element that Prowse smooths over, as if afraid of darkening the fairy tale plot.

Consider the play’s climax. Unlike the musical, things don’t end with Higgins and Eliza together again, but with an extended argument in which she spells out all that is wrong with his thinking and he moves from defending himself to applauding the new independence that lets her walk out on him. 

The scene is constructed almost like a boxing match, with them warily circling, making test jabs and then swinging with all they’ve got. It’s hard not to imagine the actor and actress on their feet, energized by the debate.

But Prowse has them sitting calmly on opposite sides of the stage, expressing barely enough passion to keep the conversation going. The scene is still good, because Shaw’s writing is so good. But it doesn’t achieve the theatrical miracle that is Shaw’s trademark, of making the exchange of ideas dramatically exciting. 

And that scene is emblematic of the production as a whole, Prowse repeatedly choosing plot over ideas, sentiment over satire. The play’s virtues are all here, but rarely as excitingly as the best of Shaw can be.

Rupert Everett’s Higgins is a classic absent-minded professor, so satisfied by his view of the world that it never occurs to him that others might not see things as he does or, indeed, that others really exist at all. 

Perhaps led by the director’s moderating hand, Everett doesn’t make Higgins too eccentric, too nasty, too comic or too tic-filled. But that’s a characterization built on negatives, and Everett continually runs the risk of making him not much of anything. 

Kara Tointon is appropriately lovely and lovable as Eliza, despite a Cockney sound in the early scenes that has a bit of Dick Van Dyke about it and a tendency to lose concentration when she isn’t speaking, going dead until her next cue wakes her and gets her back into character. 

Even at her most alive, her Eliza is too passive, too instinctively subservient to offer Higgins much of a match.

Diana Rigg is totally wasted in the cameo role of Mrs. Higgins, Peter Eyre is a pleasant grandfatherly Pickering, and Michael Feast an oddly tentative Doolittle.

It’s still a fun evening, but too safely so – Shaw-Lite.

Gerald Berkowitz

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