27th October 2016
Needingworth Village Hall
Type of Production
Author: Julie Armstrong
~~Being a great admirer of George Bernard Shaw’s piece, I was very much looking forward to Wellworth Player’s production of Pygmalion. A classic piece of theatre, with familiar scenes and lines that everyone knows (perhaps more from the musical version, My Fair Lady) this play has to be treated sensitively and with respect in order to please an audience where the expectation is already great - and Wellworth Players certainly did not disappoint under the direction of Neal Dench.
The attention to detail was very evident, with costumes, hair and make up all looking the part beautifully and it was pleasing to see in the programme that other local societies had helped out with costuming too. It is also worth noting that, again according to the programme, many of the actors on stage had also been involved in much of the behind-the-scenes activities, such as stage management and set construction. It always pleases me to see members of a society and their families all getting involved in the many aspects of theatrical production. The staging itself was superb, in what was the relatively tricky space of a blank village hall. With the hall set out in a cabaret style, the audience was able to relax at the tables and enjoy the fish and chip supper provided with ease. This was a nice touch and a welcome distraction during one of the lengthy scene changes.
The stage itself, the sets, the costumes, even the rich red velvet stage curtains successfully transported us to the early 1900’s and the world of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. The sound and lighting were adequate for the setting although, as is so often the case with technicals, there were a couple of minor issues here and there - with the transition from each act proving somewhat tricky and sometimes leaving the audience blinded by the light, as the house lights suddenly took us from darkness to brilliance at the flick of a switch! With a limited lighting rig, the set looked good, although choosing to highlight particular areas of the stage at certain points would have given more depth and atmosphere to the piece. The staging was made all the more tricky by the lack of wing space, making scene changes particularly difficult. Bulky items of furniture such a chaise-longues and armchairs had to be hauled up on to the stage through the tabs in full view of the audience, whilst trying not to divulge what was being prepared for us behind the red velvet. Divided into five acts, it was therefore a lengthy wait for the audience whilst the set was completely changed from Higgins’ laboratory to his mother’s drawing room and back again - no mean feat - but this did unfortunately halt the flow of the play from the audience’s point of view. Thankfully the resulting sets, upon their unveiling, were worth the wait, and the backstage team worked smoothly and professionally under difficult circumstances.
This however did not detract from the performances on the stage. For the opening scene, although somewhat lacking in scenery, we found ourselves in Covent Garden with the Eynsford-Hills desperately trying to hail a cab and escape from the rain. Maggie Redgrave as Mrs Eynsford-Hill delighted, with her clean as a whistle accent, whilst the bystanders in direct contrast were a joy with their Cockney twang. Laura Mitcham as Clara and Lee Mitcham as Freddy both relaxed into their roles as the play unfolded and later their scene in Mrs Higgins’ drawing room felt a lot more confident, making it a pleasure to watch. As the opening scene progressed we were introduced to the delightful Francesca Mann as Eliza Doolittle. Utterly believable as the “uncouth guttersnipe” selling flowers to the theatre-going gentry, Francesca had perfected the whining Cockney dialect, sometimes grating on the ears of the anyone who was listening - both on stage and off! When Henry Higgins, expertly portrayed by Paul Silver, bumps in to Simon West’s wonderful Colonel Pickering, the scene is set for the rest of the story to unfold.
The cast took us on a journey from the dreary gutters of Covent Garden to upper echelons of high society London where the transformation of Eliza from dowdy flower girl to lady of note was wonderful. Francesca Mann tackled the challenge of transforming herself both visually and verbally, with great success and the audience were totally on her side in the final scene where she berates Higgins for his treatment of her throughout the transformation process. Paul Silver was superb as Henry Higgins, his pompous attitude towards Eliza beautifully contrasted with his relationship with Colonel Pickering, which was full of admiration and respect. Simon West played Colonel Pickering in a suitably cool, calm and collected manner, befitting of the character, whilst maintaining a soft spot for Eliza and a respect for Mrs Pearce, ably played by Abi Pearson, unlike his counterpart.
We are introduced to Mark Hebert who looks superb as Alfred Doolittle, with his dustman’s garb and smudged complexion, however, in a note to wardrobe, I suspect that in his line of work his gleaming white shirt may actually have matched his grubby face rather more. Mark did unfortunately fall over a few of his lines, although we can perhaps put this down to opening night nerves. I do feel that slowing down the delivery would help enormously, allowing time for the lines to come naturally - and also enabling the audience to catch every word. That said, Mark’s projection was the best on stage and I have no doubt that those seated at the back of the hall had no trouble hearing Alfred Doolittle’s dulcit tones.
Karen Bays, as Henry’s mother Mrs Higgins, played the role with an assurance that left the audience feeling relaxed and able to enjoy her scenes to the utmost. The relationship she created between herself and her son was a joy to watch, giving Paul Silver the opportunity to display another side of Henry Higgins as he demonstrates a respect for his mother, not shown to the other women in his life. However, despite his ranting, Karen as Mrs Higgins remains calm and won’t put up with his nonsense - beautifully portrayed and utterly believable. Despite our disdain for Higgins’ character throughout, Paul managed to tug gently on the heartstrings of the audience with his closing line and we hear some doubt in his mind for the first time as he wonders whether Eliza will come back to him or go and marry Freddy. Beautifully delivered.
This was a well directed show with some lovely performances on the stage - credit goes to all involved both onstage and off. Congratulations to the Wellworth Players for a thoroughly enjoyable performance of Pygmalion.