The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead

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September 2017

Pygmalion Review

David Gardner

A Cinderella story with a socialist heart

Last year the Hampstead Players celebrated their 40th anniversary.  In that time the Hampstead Parish Church-based group have produced a number of plays, including 20 Shakespeare’s, but, though there have been readings of his plays over the decades, not one Shaw production.  This omission has now been corrected by directors Hoda Ali and Cristina Bancora with a fresh, confident rendering of Pygmalion  performed in the noble architecture of our church  from 5th to 7th July.

We all may feel we know the story of the professor of phonetics making a bet to turn a flower girl into a lady, but one is inclined to forget how much social content is in the play and how much heart it has. 
The set, not elaborate but with the clever use of rotating flats (Margaret Willmer, Graphic Design) representing the different locations in its five acts, was fine for a production that concentrated on character and performance.  The costumes (Jane Mayfield), lighting (Harlequin) and sound (Cameron Houston) all conspired to hold the audience in the productions grip.  I particularly liked the groupings and the movement throughout, from the atmospheric opening scene where assorted individuals sheltering from the rain were arranged on the chancel steps with the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, seated in the centre.

Jo Siddall’s Eliza was a wonderful creation, with her expressive face and careful movement.  She made the change from forthright Cockney to poised lady very convincing and eschewed any sentimentality. It was a mature performance, and we empathised with her throughout her journey.

Adrian Hughes was Henry Higgins and he made the part his own.  He has given some fine performances for the Hampstead Players over recent years, but this must be his most charismatic, totally at ease but still able to show his deep frustration at finding an attachment to a woman so unlike himself.

Simon May as Alfred Doolittle was a revelation, bringing his character alive and winning us with his arguments on behalf of the undeserving poor and the pitfalls of middle class morality.

But Shaw invests all his characters with love, individuality and authority.  Dorothy Jenkins Mrs Pearce was a strong and composed presence, the Scottish accent a surprise and a joy and her hold over Higgins both witty and telling.

The Eynsford-Hills made a very believable and vulnerable family: Cara Pennock as the socially aware mother; Mary Clare as the rebellious daughter Clara who delights in the discovery of the b-word which so shocked playgoers a century ago; and Mike Gale as Freddie was a perfect cameo of a young man, a figure of fun to Higgins, but who moved us so much that I surprisingly hoped that Eliza would find happiness with him.

And then there were the dignified upright foils for Higgins: Geoff Prutton as Colonel Pickering, too polite to demur when Higgins in a gloriously silly moment sits on his lap; and Moragh Gee as Mrs Higgins, in vain trying to correct her sons manners and see to it that Eliza is thought of as a woman in her own right rather than a game.  But all the cast were wonderfully in character, including Becky Selman as a Parlourmaid introducing us perkily to guests/new characters.

The production was pacy and urgent, much helped by the choreographed scene changes, Cristina Bancora the guiding spirit, with the cast themselves doing the work to well-chosen music. Praise here must also go to the Stage Managers Annie Duarte and Sheena Craig.

Sometimes Shaw indulges himself with his verbosity and the play loses momentum, but with its serious discussions on class, inequality, snobbery, manners and female emancipation explored with that Shavian wit, this doesnt detract from our enjoyment of the play.  I can vouch for its appeal across the generations, judging by the comments of audience members in my row - aged from 8 to 93.

The highlight of the first half had to be Mrs Higgins At-Home with newly trained Eliza greeting the Eynsford-Hills and bringing the house down with her repeated How do you doooo?

After the interval, the mood changes with Elizas plaintive refrain Whats to become of me?  Shaw wanted the play to be less like a Cinderella fairy-tale and more a feminist parable.  (And as others have noted, the slippers are thrown, not worn.)  Eliza walks in slowly, upright and beautifully dressed, with a serious expression, and turns her back on the audience, followed by Higgins and Pickering, both dishevelled and ready for bed after their triumph at the ball (not shown in the play).

Not everything is perfect when you perform in our church in the summer without a raised stage.  The sightlines can be poor and there are, despite good voice work by Barbara Alden, moments when the acoustics aren’t encouraging.  The seats at either side of the acting area provided an excellent alternative view but I detected that even those audience members sitting towards the back of the auditorium seemed to come away happy and, like me, singing the words.

What a good start to the next 40 years of the Hampstead Players!  Congratulations to Hoda and all involved.

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