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Just after it was announced that Claire Danes was going to be Eliza in the Roundabout’s revival of Shaw’s Pygmalion, I read a disgruntled theatre lover’s posting on the internet: “They may as well have cast Lindsay Lohan!” How benighted: for one thing, Lohan has already played an extract of the part, beautifully, in the 2004 movie Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen; for another, both Lohan and Danes are more able to tackle classic roles than their tabloid-loving tendency to have celebrity boyfriends might suggest.

So it was no surprise to me that, under the direction of David Grindley, Danes acquits herself perfectly well as the Covent Garden flower girl who is made over by Professor Henry Higgins. Her accent may not be unwavering; she may have occasional difficulty shedding un-crocodile tears; she may rely on her broad smile to charm older men as frequently as did the young Julia Roberts.

But when Danes sits dead-centre in the drawing room of Higgins’s mother’s house and bellows the famous line “Not bloody likely!”, the loud failure of Eliza becomes the quiet success of Danes.

Other casting also pays off: Boyd Gaines brings stalwart dignity to Colonel Pickering, the same quality with which he imbued his assignment in Grindley’s recent revival of Journey’s End; Helen Carey is all plummy poise as Higgins’s mother; and Jay O. Sanders – in spite of a stage accent that suggests his Alfred P. Doolittle grew up anywhere but the western hemisphere – transforms from sooty to silken as well as
his daughter.

The strengths of Jefferson Mays as Higgins are that he never curries favour with the audience and, like the production itself, he trusts the genius of Shaw’s text. Yet of all the actors Mays was the only one who, in my mind, kept forcing unwanted comparisons with his counterpart in the Pygmalion musical My Fair Lady. Mays has a smidge of Rex Harrison’s abrasiveness, although thankfully Shaw does not require the play’s Higgins to violate his oath as a cynic and melt momentarily into Eliza’s arms at the end. (Not bloody likely!)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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