Gawd Blimey Guv'nor - Chichester's Pygmalion is the bees knees
Screen and stage star Rupert Everett gives pucker performance as pompous prof Henry Higgins.
GEORGE Bernard Shaw would have got on famously with actor Sir Roger Moore who has been speaking out recently about the demise of correctly spoken English.
Received Pronunciation was, at one time, a necessity in an actor's repertoire – particularly if one wanted to work for the BBC or the RSC.
Speaking the Queen's English, as Ma'am does, sadly fell out of favour in the early 1960s with a drive to make the stage and screen more accessible to the masses.
Shaw used his romantic comedy, Pygmalion, to lampoon the British class system which, for centuries, saw the upper classes keep the riff-raff in their place by talking and behaving differently.
Despite his attack on class the left-wing Irish writer was a staunch advocate of the science of phonetics and was a BBC advisor hired to ensure that its commentators pronounced properly and spoke eloquently.
He was appalled that speech often denoted position in society, but he battled to preserve the quality of spoken English.
Shaw would have approved of Rupert Everett's splendidly enunciated diction – borne from the sort of very privileged upbringing that Shaw despised.
Everett's return to the stage as the arrogant, self-opinionated, smug Professor Henry Higgins in Chichester Festival Theatre's revival of Shaw's Pygmalion is a triumph.
It's a grittier and, at times, darker telling of a familiar story, that condemns the cruel social experiment which manipulates a filthy young girl from guttersnipe flower-seller into graceful social butterfly.
It's easy to forget Shaw's political leanings when watching My Fair Lady, the musical version, which turned the whole fish-out-of-water tale into a schmaltzy Cinderella fairy story.
Pygmalion is a blistering social satire which attacks the aspirations of its characters regardless of class - whether it's the lowly Eliza Doolittle who dreams of working in a flower shop or Higgins' aims to be top dog in his field of phonetics.
Everett is no benign and fatherly Rex Harrison. He's a petulant mummy's boy and "confirmed bachelor" who maliciously wagers that he can turn Doolittle into a socialite capable of hob-nobbing with the gentry.
The voice of caution comes from his housekeeper, Mrs Pearce (a severe and restrained cameo from Susie Blake) who, because of her social position, can see the pitfalls from taking an urchin out of her comfort zone.
"What happens to her afterwards?" she asks. Higgins couldn't care less. The bet would have been won or lost by then.
We first meet Eliza selling flowers in Covent Garden. Honeysuckle Weeks, who we are so used to hearing speaking frightfully clipped vowels in ITV's Foyle's War, has been taking lessons from the Dick Van Dyke book of Cockney elocution.
As a Londoner, and the daughter of a Cockney, I fail to understand why actors abuse the brogue, but it does the trick if the screeching accent and almost unintelligible gabble was a deliberate attempt to distinguish her dialogue before and after Higgins' tuition.
Weeks' Eliza is a spunky young lady and she gives a spirited performance though she seems ill at ease in the finery and habits of the lady she eventually becomes.
The gentle and melodic phrasing of actor and director Peter Eyre as fellow gambler and dialect expert Colonel Pickering is a perfect foil to Higgins' moody and hot-headed bullishness.
The pair compare to Holmes and Watson and Everett, who has played the super sleuth, brought a lot of the detective's waspish idiosyncrasies to the part (those violin lessons certainly weren't wasted) while Eyre's Pickering displays genteel and intelligent reserve.
Stephanie Cole, as Higgins' mother, is a formidable Lady Bracknell character though not as intimidating once you got under the steely veneer. Her withering put-downs of her son bring out the levity in the dialogue.
Phil Davis must get tired of being typecast as a typical working class Londoner but the Essex boy gives a standout comic turn as street philosopher, dustman, reluctant groom and Eliza's dad, Alfred.
There's a surprising amount of comedy in the play and not a lot of romance but as an example of class war melodramas it can't be beaten.
Pygmalion runs in rep at Chichester Festival Theatre until August 28. To come in the 2010 summer season – Ibsen's The Master Builder and Ivan Turgenev's A Month In The Country.
For tickets call the box office 01243 781312 or online www.cft.org.uk.
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