This is an age of upstarts, observes a man in the crowd early in Pygmalion, where anyone can become somebody else as long as telltale signs of speech and manner do not give us away.
Thus begins a plot with which everyone is familiar: the observer, Henry Higgins (Paul Meade), is as immune to pleasure as he is to good manners; his associate Col Pickering (Gerard Byrne) is an inveterate gentleman freshly returned from India; and their experiment is Eliza Doolittle (Anna Sheils-McNamee), a Covent Garden "flahr gel" who will be turned outside in, transformed through speech, clothing and behaviour into a duchess. Shaw's title claims kinship with Greek myth, but this is essentially the story of Frankenstein with better elocution and slightly more screaming.
Smock Alley’s production attempts something of its own transformation, daring itself that a company of modest means can pull off a costume drama of linguistic wit and aesthetic precision. By George, they haven’t quite got it. But if director Liam Halligan’s production doesn’t nail the details, it delivers some fine expression.
Rather than cleave to the period or abandon it completely, we are somewhere in between, where design and performance draw randomly from then and now. It’s hard to discern a strict logic behind these decisions, however. Sheils-McNamee brings Eliza closer to contemporary Essex than Victorian cockney, whipped finally into estuary tones. That could work as a sly idea about the much slighter gradients of social change today – where everybody sounds much the same – if only the production had chosen to meet her.
Instead Shaw’s text is left intact and the context preserved. But why Higgins, a man given neither to quackery nor irony, would keep a phrenology bust on his desk is beyond me and why the least progressive characters should wear the most modern clothes is a similar mystery.
The most fluent command of character and attention can be found among the lower echelons, where Tara Quirke plays Mrs Pearce as a housekeeper who really seems to rule the household, and David O'Meara, fantastic as the straight-talking schemer Alfred Doolittle, who finally becomes as much of a victim as Eliza to "middle-class morality".
As ever, it is Shaw’s writing that works hardest to undo the verve of his play, where finally the endless back and forth of disputation resembles the author’s table tennis match against himself.
Halligan’s interpretation is prone to its own middle-class moralising, intent on teaching Higgins a lesson where Shaw was adamant there was none, but it’s still Eliza’s moment of tragedy that hits home.
“What am I fit for?” she asks, in an agony of placelessness, neither one thing nor the other. Here the production carries a shiver of self-awareness: most of its makers are involved with acting schools, where people are taught to change into anything they like. In this show, everyone is Eliza.
Until September 3rd