We’ve grown accustomed to her voice in films and musicals in the century since the cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle grabbed the nation’s hearts in the stage play by George Bernard Shaw, but this production, using the original script, needs no songs.
It’s good to be reminded of the message Shaw wanted to send out about women’s rights and the class divisions of the time that kept the poor right where they belonged as far as many of the very wealthy were concerned.
All Eliza wants is to be a lady in a flower shop “stead of sellin” on the corner of Tottenham Court Road, and as luck would have it, she grabs the interest of Professor Higgins, who is such an expert in accents and dialect that he reckons he can “sometimes place people within one or two streets” of the capital.
The Newport Playgoers Society charmingly invites us this week to ‘see Shaw by the seashore’ via an informative programme put together by Steve Bissex-Williams, who also created the exceptional costumes with Rebecca Phillips.
The stage is almost bare at the start, but within minutes it is full of the vibrancy and colour of a London street market as a crowd, plus a dog named Noodle, gathers around a handcart full of fresh vegetables – and Eliza arrives to sell her bunches of violets.
Director Kevin Myers, who also composed the background music, could not have chosen a better cast. They convincingly slot into their characters, headed by Rachel Fenwick as Eliza, with Steve Drowley as Prof Higgins and Wayne Fenton as Col Pickering, always a real gent.
Mel Edwards as Mrs Higgins simply loves ticking off her son for standing with his hands in his pockets, and Claudia Barnes as the Irish housekeeper is keen to give him a wigging for using his dressing down “as a napkin” at breakfast.
She also wastes no time in getting Eliza into a bath, despite the girl protesting that “I’ve never taken off all me clothes in me life”.
Richard Dymond is Eliza’s dustman father, Alfred Doolittle and the epitomy of the undeserving poor, with an eye to the main chance. Christine King, Catherine Morgan and Tyron Davies-Sullivan perfectly represent the Eynsford-Hill family.
The professor reckons that Eliza’s offer of one shilling an hour to be taught to talk “more genteel” actually equates to a millionaire paying 60-70 guineas for his expertise, when the play was first seen in 1914, so he takes on the challenge.
Most of us will know that the “frousy slattern” turns out to be quite a lady who has lessons to teach her well-heeled tutor, and you may think that it’s not worth seeing again because you know the story, but this production is certainly worth watching . . . even down to the leisurely scene changing.