Few places can match Garsington Manor Gardens as a setting: so says the programme and it is true. If you are lucky enough to have a dry evening, the first act will take place out of doors (the rest is acted in the lovely setting of the Great Barn) and in the interval you can wander outside and round the gardens. If you get a sunset, the golden light on the fields below is magic. However, more signs around the village giving directions would be very helpful: not everyone outside Garsington knows how to get to the Manor.
Pygmalion, Bernard Shaw’s story of a flower girl transformed into a duchess, is a masterpiece of wit and clever repartee. The ‘common’ flower girl’s language is transformed, but so is her station in life and she realises that she cannot return to the gutter from whence she came. Professor Higgins only sees her as an experiment, a thing to perform her task of acting like a duchess and win his bet. He has, nevertheless, grown accustomed to her face (hard not to hum the music occasionally!) and in the end does not want her to leave. Bernard Shaw may poke fun at the flower girl’s vowels, but he laughs more at the politely rich and even more at Higgins and his appalling manners. Colonel Pickering is there as an example of how a gentleman should behave, as Eliza realises. The play deals with the morality, or immorality, of using a human being for an experiment and the consequences of doing so. Class is also examined. A chance remark by Higgins has made Eliza’s father wealthy and therefore respectable and middle-class, a position he is not happy with; wealth and position do not necessarily bring contentment.
Jenny Whitehead’s Eliza is a tour de force. She moves seamlessly from flower girl with twanging vowels to refined lady: particularly funny is the scene where her pronunciation has changed but not her vocabulary or grammar. Her dignity at the end is quite moving. Edward Hess as Higgins too is convincing as the confirmed bachelor: he must maintain his callous behaviour throughout and yet still try to persuade Eliza to come back. Both actors, aided by strong performances from the rest of the cast, make the most of the humour but also the poignancy of the play.
As Eliza leaves, Higgins asks her to buy him something; she refuses and leaves but he believes she will do his bidding in the end. Is Higgins successful in luring her back? Shaw leaves us guessing.