Reviewed by Frank McKone
Director – Rachel Hogan
Lighting Design – Neville Pye; Sound Design – Angus Eckstein
Set Design – Rachel Hogan
Costumes – Rachel Hogan, Sandy Cassidy and Cast
Characters in Order of Appearance:
Suffragettes – Philippa Russell-Brown, Kathryn Holopainen
Clara Eynsford-Hill – Eilis French; Mrs Eynsford-Hill – Crystal Mahon
A Lady of the Night – Kah-mun Wong
Freddy Eynsford-Hill – Lucas Edmunds
Eliza Doolittle – Meaghan Stewart; ‘Kershaw’ Pickering – Thomas Cullen
Henry Higgins – Adam Salter; Mrs Pearce – Joan White
Alfred Doolittle – Peter Fock; Mrs Higgins – Elaine Noon;
Maid – Kathryn Holopainen
Tempo Theatre sought out Rachel Hogan to direct, asking for a ‘light’ choice.
Considering what Bernard Shaw himself wrote in 1941, you may wonder about Tempo’s agreeing to do Pygmalion: I wish to boast that Pygmalion has been an extremely successful play, both on stage and screen, all over Europe and North America as well as at home. It is so intensely and deliberately didactic, and its subject is esteemed so dry, that I delight in throwing it at the heads of the wiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art should never be didactic. It goes to prove my contention that great art can never be anything else.
[ Preface to Pygmalion, Penguin ]
You may have wondered, too, why Shaw gave it such an awful name, Pygmalion, instead of the oh-so attractive title My Fair Lady. That Lerner and Loewe musical was staged in 1956, six years after Shaw died; and was made into the famous movie in 1964. I have always felt that Shaw would have felt ambivalent about the ending of My Fair Lady, where Rex Harrison’s Professor Higgins is almost avuncular and Julie Andrews’ Eliza reappears as if still wanting him after all, as he sits sadly hearing her recorded voice.
(I have written on this issue previously in my review of the Opera Australia production at https://frankmckone2.blogspot.com/search?q=My+Fair+Lady)
The famous British director Trevor Nunn had no doubts in his 2001 article in The Guardian, Poor Professor Higgins! In George Bernard Shaw's original play, Eliza and Henry don't even get it together. No wonder My Fair Lady is miles better than Pygmalion….But the real achievement of Lerner's adaptation is his insight that the story requires not one, not two, but three personal journeys. Doolittle is changed into a respectable member of the reviled middle classes; Eliza is changed into an new woman once her "guttersnipe" habits are expunged; but the third metamorphosis is of Professor Higgins, who is transformed finally and movingly from a man unable to express his feelings into a more complete emotional human being. Pygmalion is a collection of very brilliant theatrical and comic ideas, but My Fair Lady quite simply is a masterpiece.
[ https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2001/mar/14/artsfeatures.georgebernardshaw ]
Along with Rachel Hogan, and her excellent cast, including at least two drama teachers, I don’t agree with Trevor Nunn. Rachel's production is lightly done, with a finesse that is entirely true to the original Shaw play, which he called – ironically – a ‘romantic’ comedy.
If you want schmaltzy romance, choose My Fair Lady. If you want the truth, go see Tempo’s Pygmalion, laugh at Adam Salter’s Henry Higgins (because you can’t laugh with him), and enjoy Meaghan Stewart’s irrepressible Eliza – and especially feel with her that tremendous sense of relief that in her determination to be her own person she has found a way to escape her arrogant, even violent, Pygmalion: the sculptor who stupidly falls in ‘love’ (i.e. lust) with his own creation. Pig-malion, I would call Professor Henry Higgins.
“Tempo Theatre Inc. is a non-profit community theatre organisation proudly serving the Canberra region. We produce and promote live theatre, foster social interaction between people interested in theatre, and promote theatre skills development.”
[ https://tempotheatre.org.au/main/welcome.html ]
Tempo Theatre has served us very well indeed.
Now to the production itself.
As a Londoner myself, whose grandfather was a true Cockney – born within the sound of Bow Bells (and whose grandmother was Welsh, like Eliza’s according to the phonetics professor) – I was impressed especially with the accuracy of the accents, though I did find the harshness of Peter Fock’s ‘undeserving poor’ voice in his first scene a little hard to follow. He, and even Meaghan Stewart when in the gutter in the opening scene, could slow the pace to bring out more of the ‘knowing’ quality of the language – which Meaghan captured so beautifully in the ‘not bloody likely’ scene. Cockney expression, often what I knew as a child as ‘chi-acking’, makes fun of the person being spoken to, while also being an in-joke that the listener – if a true denizen of Tottenham Court Road – appreciates. (How Shaw, an Irishman, came to understand Cockney so well always amazed me.)
The details of the characterisations was the next element that made this production impressive. The trick in Bernard Shaw’s writing is to play just enough ‘over-the-top’ in an expressionist style to bring out the subtlety of the comedy (this is Shaw being didactic) at the same time as formulating naturalistic characters which draw upon the audience’s empathetic feelings. I call this acting both outwards and inwards at the same time. It makes Shaw’s dialogue special. Shakespeare did it so well using verse. Shaw can be harder to fathom: many directors think his dialogue is boring!
Everyone in Hogan’s cast cottoned on wonderfully to Shaw’s intention, placing their character in their social class with just the right personality.
I was pleased especially to see Elaine Noon’s Mrs Higgins take control of her scenes with the two childish ‘boys’ Henry and Kershaw Pickering; and a similar strength in Joan White’s Mrs Pearce – yet with the recognition of her place as a servant dependent for her income on her employer, the often irascible and childish Professor. The change in Alfred Doolittle when he comes into the money – but with middle class morality obligations – is easily over-played too far. Stanley Holloway could get away with this in the romantic My Fair Lady; but Peter Fock got it right as it should be for Pygmalion. The Eynsford-Hill family also all kept that balance. We could see them as a real family of individuals without the satire of their class taking over their scenes.
Playing Colonel Pickering as a younger character than is usually done, worked very well. Thomas Cullen had the class behind him that placed him in Henry Higgins’ environment, while his less imposing figure yet with worldly experience made him able to play more equally with Eliza – allowing the scene in which she explains how important it was for her when he had called her ‘Miss Doolittle’ to have a greater impact for us, in our times where the issues of how men treat women, at all ages and levels of society even within our democratic Parliament, have become exposed so much more openly than in 1914. Presenting Philippa Russel-Brown and Kathryn Holopainen as suffragettes with Votes for Women signs at Covent Garden made its political point clear – very suitable for Bernard Shaw’s didacticism.
Finally the details of the development in the characters of Eliza Doolittle and Professor Higgins and their fraught relationship were played out by Meaghan Stewart and Adam Salter with the exact balance needed between the acting outward and acting inward that makes this production a thoroughly satisfying success.
And I must conclude by saying that the staging and set design was thoughtfully done, keeping in mind Shaw’s stage instructions yet working very well in the limited space available on the Belconnen Community Centre’s stage. And the thunder and lightning which begins the play were appropriately realistic.
Only being able to offer a one-week run is perhaps inevitable for an amateur company, but I must say the standard of this production makes me wish it could go on longer.