THEATRE / A question of class: Paul Taylor on Josie Lawrence in Pip Broughton's production of Pygmalion at the Nottingham Playhouse

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The pulling power of television-comedy stars and pop singers has not been lost on Nottingham Playhouse during the artistic directorship of Pip Broughton. Remember The Pocket Dream, which gave impro-merchants Mike McShane and Sandi Toskvig the chance to brush-up and bash up their Shakespeare in a show where A Midsummer Night's Dream featured as an amusingly shambolic play-within-the-play performed by hapless amateurs? Or Tony Slattery, bravely italicising the rebarbative clever- dick side of his persona as the sarcastic, bumptious nihilist in Neville's Island? or Toyah Wilcox going classical on Therese Raquin?

For the final production of her tenure, Broughton reunites with Josie Lawrence, with whom she has worked several times in the past, and Lawrence is certainly the best thing about the Pygmalion now on offer. With another well-known television face, Christopher All Things Great and Small Timothy, in the role of Professor Higgins, the Playhouse looks to have another commercial success on its hands. Whether the show is an artistic success, though, is much more doubtful.

With memories still fresh of Howard Davies' lavish National Theatre revival, which opened up the piece by using a beguiling conflation of Shaw's stage and screen scripts, it would be easy to look unfairly on a production which went back to basics and denied us, say, a glimpse of the Embassy reception where Eliza passes muster as a lady, or the merest hint of a Rolls-Royce. But, even with all that taken into consideration, it must be said that the sliding sets here manage to be ugly as well as thrifty, and ill-defined as well as prone to hiccups. For example, from where I was sitting, you get little sense that Higgins' drawing- room is also his laboratory. Instead of an array of cranky gadgetry, there are rows of perplexingly empty shelves and wooden cabinet-shaped voids dotted around the walls. It looks less like the habitat of a tunnel-vision expert than of someone who has given up knicknacks for Lent.

Considering that the play is an experiment to show the arbitrariness of class distinctions, it's a pity that, in this production, one or two of those distinctions are fuzzy from the start. It's true that Mrs Pearce, Higgins' housekeeper, is a starchy woman with a mind of her own, but in Fidelis Morgan's grimly imperious, way- over-the-top performance, she has all the deference of Lady Bracknell and she spits out her lines with a lofty contempt that would make Mrs Danvers seem like the last word in warm approachability.

That Lawrence's Eliza looks such an elegant thoroughbred in evening dress is, of course, perfectly in keeping with the play's message; that, thanks to a slight height difference, she can look down on Timothy's underpowered, colourless Higgins, even when a bedraggled guttersnipe, works pictorially less well for its purposes.

Very funny in the stiff tea-party scene where she regales the company with scabrous family gossip in the bright refined accents of a Watch with Mother voice-over, Lawrence can also strike the darker notes of pain and disorientation when she is left a stranded hybrid. Of the men, though, only Phillip Manikum can match her, playing a likeably disreputable Doolittle who responds to being made a gentleman with the comic awkwardness and pink resentment of one who has been made to look a fool.

Continues until 23 April at the Nottingham Playhouse (Booking: 0602 419419)

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