Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings



Highbury Theatre Centre


IT’S 102 years this month since George Bernard Shaw’s Professor Higgins first stepped on the London stage to turn Eliza into a lady, and a century on what a splendidly entertaining Pygmalion has been served up by the Highbury Players.

It is lively, witty and, perhaps a tribute to Shaw’s masterful writing, not in the least bit dated. Ken Agnew excels as the cantankerous Professor Henry Higgins, a confirmed bachelor -  in the literal rather than euphemistic sense I should perhaps quickly add – an expert in phonetics who can tell you where you are from, and no doubt inside leg measurement and mother’s maiden name, merely from hearing you speak.

Agnew’s Higgins has a permanently pained expression and shows inexhaustible exasperation at the stupidity and boorishness of the world around him.

He seems most content with Colonel Pickering, an expert on Indian dialects recently returned from the sub-continent and played with delightful old world charm by Rob Alexander. Higgins can see a fellow language expert as something relatively close to being almost an equal.,

Higgins, whose manners are, should be say, eccentric, is kept in check by the two women in his life, his long suffering housekeeper Mrs Pearce, played with an air of quiet resignEliza Doolittleation by Rosemary Manjunath, and his mother, Mrs Higgins, played with an air of mild exasperation, by Sandra Haynes.

Then into their cosy if unconventional life comes Eliza Doolittle, a lovely performance by Liz Adnitt. The language experts do not exactly embrace her but see her as more of an experiment and decide on a wager to see if Higgins can turn this common guttersnipe into a lady who can be passed off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party in six months time.

The excellent Liz Adnitt as Eliza Doolittle

Eliza is a fun challenge to any actor because it is essentially three parts and Adnitt manages all three seamlessly and with consierable aplomb.

 First we have the cockney flower seller with words tumbling out so fast there is no time for grammar or aitches, with screams substituting for exclamations or protestations and anything said to her treated with hostility and suspicion while it is digested.

Then we have Eliza as the half lady at Mrs Higgins’ at home day, entertaining Mrs Eynsford-Hill, played in homely style by Val Goode, her daughter Clara played in haughty fashion by Georgia Green, and the splendidly love smitten Freddy played by Jack Hobbis.

Eliza has the elocution to pass as a lady, if a little slow and deliberate . . . but she has the grammar and vocabulary what shows what she is not no fine lady yet, no Lord love a duck. It is a sort of how now brown cow patois passed off by Higgins as the very latest in small talk.

The the fact it is accepted as such, as a new fashion, is all part of Shaw's purpose of writing the play in the first place, apart from money of course, as a satire on the social mores and rigid class system of late Victorian and Edwardian England.

Finally we have the finished article, Eliza as the duchess, or is it the Hungarian princess, well spoken, articulate and able to express herself quite forcibly – which delights Higgins in his peculiar sort of way. You are never quite sure whether he is delighted with the success of what he sees as his creation rather like some sort of drawing room Dr Frankenstein, or whether he has actually, God forbid, discovered something approaching affection or even, whisper it quietly . . . love for the girl.

Shaw was adamant no such thing would happen and left his Higgins laughing at the ridiculousness of Eliza contemplating marriage to Freddy.

Yet producers and the public wanted a happy ending with at the very least a hint of marriage in the air, as in My Fair Lady, a favourite musical and film for many and probably the best known version of the original play, albeit the singalong version.

Yet even in the original, seen here, you are left with the thought that Higgins, for all his bluster, wearing his confirmed bachelor status as a badge of honour, is not going to survive without his Eliza any more. We are left with an unlikely love story and an end we will never know - although the romantic in us is sure  their futures are locked together.

Scattered among the leads we have support from the likes of Alfred Doolittle, dustman and Eliza,s father, played by Peter Cooley. Alfred is an expert on the deserving poor, such as the widowed, simple minded, infirm and legless, literally, and the undeserving poor such as the legless, liquidly, feckless and congenitally bone idle and he is proud to be among the latter with a mission in life to tap up those of sufficient means, such as Pref Higgins, to sustain his underserving existence.

Then there is Higgins’ earlier pupil Nepommuck, played again by Jack Hobbis – not that you would have known without looking in the programme.

He is Hungarian and speaks 32 languages, including a variation of English well suited to selling Cornettos and, unwittingly, confirms to Higgins that his experiment, wager, call it what you will with Eliza has been a stunning success.

And that is the crux of the whole matter. Was he doing it for her or for his ego? Is she a completed project to be discarded, or one to keep and cherish? We are never really sure and before we can decide Shaw calls down the curtain and leaves us in mid-air.

The costumes are nicely of the period, helping to set the scene well and director Ian Appleby has done a fine job making extended scene changes look interesting with a fussy support cast of extras appearing to rearrange the furniture to be just right rather than leave an empty stage – with the duration of furniture moving presumably dependent upon the speed main characters can change from evening to day wear and back again.

It is not the easiest of plays to stage – Shaw acknowledged that in the first production – with five acts and half a dozen scenes and Malcolm Robertshaw has kept the flexible set simple with a few orange crates for an opening in Covent garden and a collection of rearranged chairs for the rest.

Jolly music of the time from Palm Court trios to a banjo band fill in scene changes, one snippet sounded almost like The Lancers, evoking visions of Mr Pastry – if you have never seen that look it up on YouTube.

There are a couple of times when wit stalls so it could do with an injection of pace, or at least being nudged along a bit but any hesitancy will no doubt vanish as the two week run progresses. All in all though a most entertaining evening. To 30-04-16

Roger Clarke


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