Billed as “Six shows, six weeks, one company”, the Windsor Repertory Festival at the Theatre Royal got off to a stormy start back in June - literally - as theatregoers were safely evacuated after a powerful thunderstorm interrupted the opening night.
It therefore felt like a fitting end to the run that with George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion we were given the tempestuous relationship between Eliza Doolittle and her mentor, 'Enry 'Iggins.
A group of people are sheltering from the rain and flower girl Eliza scuttles in to join them. It becomes apparent that she is being observed by a man with a notepad who appears to be jotting down her every word.
Concerned he is a policeman who has the wrong idea, Eliza screeches at him and someone challenges the man who reveals he is a phonetics expert who is talented enough to pin down dialects almost to the street they originated in.
This is Professor Henry Higgins, and his challenger is the very man he was hoping to meet - Colonel Pickering. The two share a love of phonetics and discuss whether they could feasibly present Eliza Doolittle as a duchess with some lessons in elocution, leading to a wager whereby Pickering will pay her tuition fees. Eliza, keen to better herself and perhaps work in a flower shop, takes them up on the offer.
A made-over Eliza is then taken to lunch at Henry's mother's house. She speaks eloquently, although the substance remains much the same.
Having been taught that the weather and general health are the best topics, Eliza gives a wonderfully over-rehearsed and recited barometric description of the current weather before moving on to the mystery of whether her relatives may have killed her aunt, who had survived diptheria though it turned her blue, puzzling over how influenza would have beaten her when she had such a robust constitution, with Eliza's father "ladling gin down her throat".
The audience were in hoots of laughter at this dichotomy of the flower girl-turned-polite society lady, especially at the delivery of the classic line, “Not bloody likely!”
In the meantime, Henry shows his cantankerous, impatient and rude side. Pickering has softened Eliza’s manners andHenry her cockney tones, but Henry's own mannerisms are jumpy, arrogant and childish.
Later, Eliza and Henry argue, with Henry hurling insults at Eliza, who infers that Henry has suggested she become a prostitute, retorting: “We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.”
While Eliza’s father has been helped into “middle-class morality” and feels obliged to marry Eliza's stepmother, so Eliza has gained the confidence, elegance and dignity to stand tall and present herself to society. We realise that while Henry has become dependent on Eliza, the feeling is no longer mutual.
Sarah Dungworth as Eliza had some fantastic cockney screeches and turns of phrase, morphing believably into duchess-speak and society mode. Tom McCarron as Henry Higgins played his nervous energy for laughs and everyone in the audience was appreciative.
The whole ensemble brought out the best in this production, with great moments from everyone, including a head-scratching Alfred, a concerned Mrs Higgins and a polite Pickering.
The costumes and scenery cast us back into the age of George Bernard Shaw and it was refreshing to hear a discourse about the occupations of an independent woman, as far as the era of the play allowed.
The denouement was a crescendo, with Eliza and Henry playing off their traded places well, Henry diminishing and receding into his chair while Eliza revealed endless depths of good judgement and common sense.
Mrs Higgins portrayed a still, quiet wisdom, conveying to the audience exactly how Henry was veering off-track in his will to succeed, and when she lamented “Men! Men!” she was enthusiastically echoed by one lady in the audience.
All the supporting players supplied just the right balance of emotional subtext. This was a graceful production that showed us the folly of treating other human beings as mere subjects of social experiments.
Review: Natalie Aldred