Thursday 23 November 2017

This fair lady is sheer joy from start to finish

THEATRE

A LADY AT HEART: Charlie Murphy plays Eliza Doolittle in 'Pygmalion' at the Abbey in Dublin
A LADY AT HEART: Charlie Murphy plays Eliza Doolittle in 'Pygmalion' at the Abbey in Dublin

EMER O'KELLY

THROWING money at a production doesn't always work; sometimes it merely accentuates that the money has been entirely wasted. But the Abbey has assuredly not wasted the taxpayers' resources with its current production of Shaw's Pygmalion.

It's a joy from start to finish, its elegance and verve wrapped in lush and imaginative visuals, and the great Fabian's biting assessment of our society's social values given its due (and serious) measure.

Henry Higgins is a selfish, insensitive boor. He is also a gentleman, because he has been raised with certain values of integrity and responsibility. He may have shed the manners he learned from his gracious, intelligent mother, but she has given him something deeper that he cannot shrug off -- the knowledge that people are equal under the skin, and class is a matter of skilled behaviour, not inheritance.

So when Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's dustman father, inherits a fortune of three thousand a year, it "shoves me into the middle classes", as he says in disgust. At the bottom of the class heap, he didn't care about the hypocritical refinement of middle-class morality; now he is trapped by its expectations, just as poor Mrs Eynsford-Hill, born into privilege but now financially reduced, struggles to preserve the only lifestyle she understands, terrified of its expectations as she never would have been had her upper-class status been financially preserved.

The delineators of class, so bewildering to those who want to be socially acceptable but find themselves excluded, are an attitude of mind, not of behaviour. Not holding your knife like a pen, saying "Pardon?" instead of "What?" can be learned: an attitude of mind can't. That's what Shaw is having fun with: Eliza is his creation, and he has created someone who is innately a lady, despite her ghastly speech and vermin-infested body. And after a few scented baths and contact with elegant minds, she realises it.

Anabelle Comyn's many-layered direction for the Abbey production deals with all of this, subtly and superbly intelligently: it runs beneath the immaculate surface of the comedy like a geyser which may explode at any moment. And her cast serve her with marvellous unanimity: no weak links in this production.

Charlie Murphy plays Eliza with charm, sensitivity and vigour, even if her relative lack of experience does show in some lack of vocal projection. (She is so good, however, that there is little doubt she'll soon master the deficiency.)

Risteard Cooper is the personification of Higgins, tempestuous, barracking, frankly idiotic in his single-mindedness; but a man a woman can love, withal. (Shaw, however, in a text Afterword, was of the opinion that Eliza probably married Freddie.)

Nick Dunning gives us a thoroughly nice old buffer Colonel Pickering, but with the echoes of the cavalry officer born to command. Hugh O'Conor manages to make the almost unplayable role of the goofy Freddy extremely playable: an ass maybe, but his lack of brains positively endearing. And Lorcan Cranitch, in what I think is possibly his first high-comedy role, is quite simply breathtaking as Doolittle, with the crudity of violence never too far below the surface.

On the distaff side, Fiona Bell is a canny Mrs Pearce, Eleanor Methven serene and unflappable as Mrs Higgins, and Susannah de Wrixon and Christiane O'Mahony make a real impression as the slightly pathetic Eynsford-Hill mother and daughter. Peter O'Brien's meticulously accurate costumes are stars in their own right with each appearance, and the set design (with arresting visual projections lit by Mick Hughes) is by Paul O'Mahony.

GBS, who gave so much support to Lady Gregory but still would not permit her to stage his plays (except for The Showing up of Blanco Posnet) because he had little faith in the professionalism or intellect of the then "Abbey Players", is, I hope, beaming satisfaction from the grave.

*******

Projects based on social issues frequently lack drama as well as being burdened with leaden worth. However, Calipo's current production (at Draiocht in Blanchardstown, and transferring to the Axis in Ballymun), has a lot going for it. Pineapple, by the company's artistic director Phillip McMahon, is a little slice of life in the sector of Irish society in which a pregnant teenager is frequently asked casually, "Who're you havin' it for?"

Paula was one of those teenagers, now a sadder and wiser woman in her twenties with two small sons, no man in her life, and very little hope for the future. Her baby sister Roxanna is 16, and believes herself in love; she attempts unsuccessfully to terminate her pregnancy when "caught".

Their mother, terminally attached to Rosary beads and notions of at least not getting found out, disowns her. Cue more responsibility for Paula just as the tremulous possibility of a "normal" life enters her Ballymun flat in the person of decent Dan.

McMahon has the sense not to produce a happy-ever-after: the play is distinctly downbeat, and the better for it. (In fact it's so realistic, you're left wondering why there aren't giant government-sponsored neon signs on every corner of every housing estate in the country flashing the word 'contraception' at passers-by.)

The downside is that despite the credit for a dramaturg (Philip Howard), Pineapple is at least 50 per cent too long and even the authenticity of its dialogue can't disguise the over-writing. The cast is headed by Caolfhionn Dunne as Paula and Jill Murphy as Roxanna, and both are extremely impressive, with good back-up performances from Nick Lee, Janet Moran and Niamh Glynn.

Direction is by David Horan in a basic set by Paul O'Mahony, lit by Sinead McKenna, with extremely iffy sound by Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty.

Sunday Independent

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