Pygmalion – Old Vic Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: George Bernard Shaw

Director: Richard Jones

No singing, no dancing all night and no getting married in the morning; George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 comedy Pygmalion steps out from the shadow of the hit musical My Fair Lady, for which it provided the inspiration, and reveals its own true colours. The play is now performed rarely, but, at the same time, it is highly familiar and living up to audience expectations can present challenges for any revival.

Shaw’s central point, that human beings cannot be judged by their appearance or the accent with which they speak, is, of course, timeless, which director Richard Jones’ production sets out to prove. However, the play’s specific characters and situations are rooted in their own era and this leads to a dichotomy, which is added to by Stewart Laing’s designs, his costumes in period and traditional, his sets plain, even ugly and modern-ish.

In the same way that the humble flower girl Eliza Dolittle asks not to be considered in superficial terms, Jones seems determined to prove that the value of Shaw’s social satire does not need to be judged by a facade of glamour and romance. At times rushed and at other times pedestrian, the uneven flow compounds a feeling that all the pieces in Jones’ jigsaw do not quite fit together neatly. All that said, nothing is done to make Shaw’s writing unfunny.

Fresh from her triumphs as sad leading characters in Tennessee Williams dramas, Patsy Ferran revels in the chance to turn her hand to comedy. Her Eliza begins as a squawking wild creature, later transformed by dialect coach, Henry Higgins to become a refined lady who mingles in high society and something of a feminist role model. Ferran is a delight throughout, but she appears to be far more at ease with her character in the later scenes.

Bertie Carvel last appeared on this stage playing Donald Trump and he tones down his performance only a little to become Higgins. This is less the arrogant toff that we normally see than the nutty professor. Perhaps Carvel is a little too manic at times, but he is successful in bringing out the solitude of a man who is more of a misfit in society than Eliza.

The two leading actors, both Olivier Award winners, take licence to go over the top at times and the same can be said of John Marquez as Alfred Dolittle, Eliza’s rumbustious father, to whom Shaw gives many of his wittiest lines. More subdued are Michael Gould as Pickering, straight man to this madcap Higgins and Sylvestra Le Touzel as the professor’s eminently sensible mother.

Jones’ bold re-imagination of this classic sparks and misfires in just about equal measures. It infuriates as much as it charms, but the key ingredient of Shaw’s wit survives intact and his messages resonate as clearly now as ever.

Runs until 28 October 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Sparks and misfires

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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