When most people hear the name Eliza Dolittle, they generally think of the movie- musical My Fair Lady and remember Audrey Hepburn turning from a dirty faced flower girl into an elegant and graceful lady.
In actual fact ‘Eliza’ was originally the creation of George Bernard Shaw as the central character for his play Pygmalion.
In 1956 when Lerner and Lowe wrote the music and Lyrics for My Fair Lady, they decided to keep the text from the play almost word for word. I applaud this decision as Shaw’s sharp and witty humour deserves to remain intact.
I have surprised myself; after watching tonight’s performance of Pygmalion I prefer the play over the musical (and I do adore musicals)…
The story centres around Professor Henry Higgins (Robert Colby), a dialect coach who agrees to take a bet with his colleague, Colonel Pickering (Bryan Probets) whereby he can take any young woman from the streets of London and pass her off as a Duchess at an Embassy Garden Party. This is where the infamous Eliza Dolittle comes in, played by the wonderful Melanie Zanetti (pictured, right). The young flower girl who wants lessons to learn to “talk more gen-teel” is swayed into their game with promises of chocolates. Her father, Alfred P Dolittle, (Chris Betts) comes to make claim on the girl but only for financial gain. The first time the gentlemen test Eliza, is in the company of Henry’s mother (Kaye Stevenson) and her unsuspecting guests, the Eynsford-Hill family. Young Freddy (Christopher Sommers) and his naïve sister Clara (Kerith Atkinson) are captivated with Eliza and her “modern small talk”. This encounter is somewhat successful but they are yet to face the larger challenge of the Embassy Garden Party.
Shaw set his play in the Edwardian period but Director Michael Gow chose to set this production in the 1950’s, and I was puzzled as to why, (apart from the opportunity to employ the absolutely beautiful 50’s dresses and music) however I didn’t feel that this distracted me from the story at all.
Melanie Zanetti, who gave us a playful and confident Eliza, seemed at ease with the vocal challenges of her character. Zanetti’s dialogue flowed easily and relaxed with her cockney accent as though she had been speaking so all her life. It was also such a pleasure to see her bring originality and cheekiness to her performance.
Robert Colby, a veteran to the arts, shared a special connection with his young co-star, as he callously belittles and taunts Eliza, relaxing comfortably into the role of Higgins. Bryan Probets as Pickering brings a gentlemanly manner to role, although he was quite energetic, showing the character as youthful rather than old and tired. I can’t go past mentioning Chris Betts who plays Eliza’s father. He completely embodied his character and drew us in with his mischievous smile. Lovely Clara played by Kerith Atkinson was poised and delivered one of the most important lines with perfect comic timing that brought the house down.
The backdrop is nothing more than a map of London but it is an effective creative tool, using a follow spot to take us to the next scene location. A minor character then sets up the scene using the very stage directions written by Shaw. Sets and props are minimal but helps the production to be simple and easy to watch.
Queensland Theatre Company delivers such high quality of performance in Pygmalion – one you are sure to enjoy. Take your Mum, as I am certain she would love it, too.