Let this be a lesson in economical theatre.
Full Throttle’s 2019 Season, themed Before They Were Musicals, opened with Pygmalion last night. Pygmalion is based on the book by George Bernard Shaw and later became the famed musical, My Fair Lady.
The story follows Eliza Doolittle (Danette Potgieter), a poor cockney flower seller who is picked up by the self-inflated phonetic professor Henry Higgins (Todd Barty) and the much kinder Colonel Pickering (Max Lenoy). Higgins and Pickering hope to turn Eliza into a perfect lady and fool High Society into believing she is a Duchess for their own enjoyment.
When one thinks of My Fair Lady, images of lavish garden parties, decadent balls and jaw dropping gowns immediately spring to mind. Pygmalion calls for the same, but Director Todd Barty had other ideas. Working within the confines of Townsville’s Courthouse Theatre, Todd presents a bare-boned iteration of Higgins’ world. There are no flats or set changes, and instead the location of each scene is simply projected in writing above the stage and a series of chairs interchanged as needed. The sense of opulence is achieved by a pack of ever-present servants in Higgins’ home and Todd’s clever choice to have his actors recite the script’s original stage directions. This stroke of genius not only effectively paints the scene but continues the exploration of speech and language at the centre of the entire plot. Todd has also woven a great deal of stylised and ritualistic speech and movement through this production. This movement is visually impactful, beautifully comical and a fabulously effective device for contextualising the strict social structures of the world. By staging the show in the Traverse (two audiences seated facing one another, with the action occurring between them), Todd has add another layer of social pressure to Eliza’s transformation, while creating an immensely enjoyable audience experience. It’s very much a case of less is more and Todd is to be applauded for his expert Direction.
As Eliza Doolittle, Danette Potgeiter (Samson) is captivating. From her first snotty-sleeved appearance as she brays and caws in a near-unintelligible raucous, to her elegant final showing; she shines. Danette’s every twitch is intentional, her attention to detail sensational and her comedic timing spot on. She leaves nothing to be desired in a truly terrific performance.
Danette is matched by Todd Barty (Road to Midnight) himself, who is delightfully detestable as Higgins. Full of pomp and little else, Todd’s Higgins sashays about the space with a confident air, one hand raised like a puppeteer as he carries on pulling Eliza’s strings. Todd spits some fantastic insults with pure vitriol and it’s satisfying to witness a character so utterly ignorant of his own failings to the very end.
As Pickering, Max Lenoy (We Will Rock You) counters Higgins’ criticisms with kindness. Max has a warm and gentle stage presence that makes him perfectly suited to this role and, despite Pickering’s relationship with Eliza not really being explored in the action, there is a genuine connection between the two characters that is highly endearing.
The cast is rounded out with brilliant performances by all actors. As Alfred Doolittle, Stephen Duffie (Summer of the Aliens) provides a hilarious insight to those who’d rather be poor and free than rich and bound by societal expectations. As Freddie and Clara Eynesford-Hill, Samuel Audas-Ryan (The Graduate) and Rylie Hansen (In the Spirit of Murder) demonstrate how youthful optimism can bring about generational changes in language and manners, while their mother, played by Kath Hotschilt (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) contrasts progress as a stickler for propriety. Mrs Pearce is played simultaneously by three actors – Dena Finkelstein, Tenille McDermott and Joel Thomas – who work in unison and independently to great effect. Barbara White is wonderful as the take-no-nonsense Mrs Higgins and Andrew Warren and Monica Peirano work hard to round out the ensemble nicely as several characters each.
Full of clever vignettes, wonderfully simple costuming and some subtle-but-sweet hat tips to the quintessential Eliza Doolittle, Audrey Hepburn, this show is nothing short of charming. It proves that flashy spectacles and big budgets will never be a match for brilliant writing, imaginative Direction and a stellar cast.
I can not recommend this production of Pygmalion highly enough. Just go and see it.
Full Throttle Theatre Company’s Pygmalion runs until 4 May 2019 at the Courthouse Theatre. Get tickets here.