By George, They’ve Got It!

11
July
2016

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REVIEW: Pygmalion, Maskers Theatre Co., Hamptworth Lodge, July 2016

As we post this review, it’s absolutely hammering down outside Winchester Today Towers – and the Maskers are probably really glad of having the night off. But as David Cradduck discovers, such is the British summer!:

It simply wouldn’t be summer without the Maskers’ two week outdoor July extravaganza, now in its ninth year set on the beautiful archery lawn at Hamptworth Lodge and previously at Mottisfont Abbey.

Regular audiences know the routine very well: bottles of bubbly, strawberries, picnic rugs and anti-insect spray. The pre-show picnic is as much a part of the evening’s entertainment as the play itself – even when it patters with good old fashioned English summer rain.

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There is nowhere quite like Hamptworth for ambience, splendour, acoustics and sheer space – the latter becoming a little too obvious when audiences are a bit on the small side which sadly was the case last night. The natural staging area, raised at one end of the lawn and approached by a series of steps, lends itself very well to all manner of shows, especially the swashbuckling, action-packed variety that Maskers excel at.

Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s original story of Cockney flower girl-made-posh and the source and inspiration for its better known musical counterpart My Fair Lady, is a little bit of a strange choice for a grand outdoor performance; it is quite wordy, has many two/three handed scenes, is fairly static and is set mainly indoors. It also relies on facial expressions (especially Eliza’s) which are lost at any distance. So it’s a shame in a way that the beautiful, and huge, setting at Hamptworth is under-utilised for this piece.

Director Meri Mackney, long time member and current chair of Maskers, tutored her cast well and nearly all roles were well cast, especially the principal roles of  Eliza Doolittle (Katherine Evans), Professor Henry Higgins (Jonathan Barney-Marmont) and Colonel Pickering (Adam Taussik). Katherine Evans in the lead role was exceptional and her nasal wailing “Oim a good gal, Oi am!” was a joy. Adam Taussik, as the pompous but lovable Pickering was the epitome of the pre-WW1 ex-military gent (a reminder of Holmes’ stable companion Dr Watson) and Jonathan Barney-Marmont made a suitably arrogant, troubled Higgins, although he was a little too aggressive at times and I was distracted occasionally by his energetic leg movements.

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Bringing up the second tier of lead actors were Hazel Burrows, a fine performance as Higgins’ intelligent and even tempered mother, Jenni Watson as the formidable Mrs Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper, Maria Head and Katarina Smith as socialites Mrs Eynsford-Hill and her daughter Clara, and William Baggs as a somewhat youthful Alfred Doolittle. A fine array of supporting cast including Maskers veterans Paul Baker, Brenda and Bruce Atkinson and Alan Watson, added colour and activity to what would otherwise be a slightly staid affair. Of course we mustn’t overlook dippy hero Freddy, played with suitable gusto by Christopher Gardener, complete with striped blazer and boater, who added the romantic element.

Pygmalion may play second fiddle to its more popular musical sister (you have to resist the temptation to break into “I’m getting married in the morning”) but Bernard Shaw’s clever observation of the ridiculous pomposity and shallowness of the English male of the era and the way he paid lip service to women’s emancipation, is a classic and in many ways is the more meaningful version. It’s Oliver Twist compared with the musical Oliver! – less memorable but far more enjoyable as a statement on the class structure and extremes of society of the time.

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There were some nice touches – for instance the full-size cut-outs of taxi and grand car, complete with bicycle wheels and Flintstone walk-along propulsion did not spoil the piece but lent some additional light moments. Full use was made of all permutations of entrances and exits; wigs and costumes were suitable authentic and colourful, and lighting was subtle but appropriate.

I missed the traditional pyrotechnics so often part of the finale at Maskers’ outdoor shows and the final line-up was a trifle apologetic (I wasn’t sure if it had finished or not). I came away convinced that it would have been a better choice for their January Nuffield Theatre slot, but all in all, this was a fine, polished performance from a very talented group that never ceases to deliver the ambience and style that has become their summer trademark.

So put your picnic together, grab the rug, chairs and insect repellant and get yourself down to join in this wonderful taste of English summer in a perfect setting.

Pygmalion runs at Hamptworth Lodge, near Salisbury, until Saturday 16th July. More information and tickets from www.maskers.org.uk

Photos: © Clive Weeks