Posts Tagged ‘G B Shaw’

Productions of this show don’t come around that often. I can only remember one in London in more than thirty years, at the NT / West End in 2001. This is on a much smaller scale – twelve actors and four musicians – but it’s an absolute delight.

Lerner & Loewe’s adaptation of G B Shaw’s play about turning a Covent Garden flower seller into a society lady by making her talk proper is packed full of songs you know so well, including Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, With A Little Bit Of Luck, I Could Have Danced All Night, On The Street Where You Live and Get Me To The Church On Time, but what really struck me about this revival was how Shaw’s satire on class and attitudes to women shines through all this jollity. Higgins may be a clever man, an expert linguist, but he’s also a misogynist and a bully, treating Eliza as a pawn in his game.

On this scale the story and musical spectacle are more balanced and the production values and performances do more than full justice to the material. The set design is simple but flexible, and Natalie Titchener’s costumes are gorgeous, sometimes taking your breath away, especially when we first see Eliza’s ball gown. The four-piece band sounds lovely, with the fine violin of David Larkin standing out. There’s a lot of dance and movement in director Joseph Pitcher’s background, which shows with some fine choreography and musical staging. A terrific production all round.

The two leads are both excellent – Bethan Nash making a superb transition from flower seller to society lady and on to assertive woman and Martin Fisher as a naive academic with zero emotional intelligence who comes over as a patronising pratt, until Eliza finally puts him in his place. They’ve got fantastic support from Phil Snowden as Eliza’s cheeky and sprightly dad Alfred and Eric Carte as Colonel Pickering, a benign but charming presence. The superb ensemble play multiple roles, often with swift, slick changes, showing off their versatility without interfering with fine vocal performances.

I think this is only the second seasonal musical at Sonning, but I’m banking on it becoming a tradition already. A great revival, on an intimate scale that magnifies and illuminates the story.

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Shaw is one of my problem playwrights, too verbose for me, but I’ve enjoyed the two productions of Saint Joan I’ve seen. I’ve also very much enjoyed Gemma Arterton’s last two, albeit very different, stage performances. I’m very comfortable with modern settings of classics, I admire audacious productions and I love the Donmar. You can see the but coming, can’t you…….

The play covers the whole of Joan’s adult life, (offstage) death and a bit of an afterlife epilogue. It starts with a conversation between Roger de Baudricourt and his steward about the inability of his hens to lay eggs, except in this production it’s two men in a boardroom in modern business dress with a giant TV screen showing the movement of prices, including eggs, in the commodities exchange, with a backtrack of quietly ringing telephones (which, judging by the wandering eyes in the audience, many took for fellow audience mobiles!). This was my first groan. 

There are two other, smaller screens on the back wall and when the middle screen isn’t showing the news channel (this is a running gimmick) all three are showing paintings appropriate to the scene’s location and, most effectively in the final scene, they turn the space into a church. There is also one point, after the Dauphin’s coronation, when the side screens show a modern spin on his crest, a revolving crown above a dolphin!

The table on a blue fitted carpet is present throughout and the revolve is used continually, too often, sometimes effectively, sometimes irritatingly. There are also smartphones. Obviously. Though it is sometimes effective, notably the trial scene, I’m afraid I often found it incongruous and it didn’t really work for me, which is a shame because there are some great performance, not least Gemma Arterton’s passionate, defiant Maid of Orleans. For me, a lot of Josie Rourke’s modern spin seemed contrived and gimmicky, detracted from the dialogue and the drama and didn’t really serve Shaw’s play.

I’m afraid I wish I’d stayed with my memories of Anne-Marie Duff on the Olivier stage nine years ago.

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