DramaNorth WestReview

Pygmalion – Playhouse, Liverpool

Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Sam Pritchard
Reviewer: Abbie Rippon

Shaw’s iconic play about the role language and speech plays within the spheres of the social classes has been re-wired and re-vamped for this 2017 production by Headlong and their associated partners. Many readers will be familiar with the play, either because they know the musical My Fair Lady which uses Pygmalion as its basis, or because they have studied it at school – their enjoyment of high school English lessons might have sparked a passion or a disdain for the play.

Pygmalion tells the story of Professor Henry Higgins and his associate Colonel Pickering, two well-to-do English gents with a passion for language and phonetics. They meet Eliza Doolittle, a common flower girl with an accent which reflects her social status. A wager is then placed that she will be transformed in time for the palace garden party a few months later – Higgins will be able to renovate her accent and dialect and turn her into a well-to-do lady.

This isn’t a fairy tale where the flower girl becomes a princess. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and Higgins doesn’t realise the impact transforming a girl beyond her social sphere will have on her. What can one do when one has the appearance of a duchess but the financial and social standing of a pauper?

Although Shaw’s original text is used, this production has been brought right up-to-date. Alex Beckett portrays an obsessive, obnoxious Higgins who lacks awareness of the feelings of others. One cannot help but be reminded of Johnny Lee Millers interpretation of Sherlock Holmes in Elementary when observing the cold, unfeeling way Beckett’s Higgins interacts with his companions.

Eliza is played superbly by Natalie Gavin. Rather than sticking with the original cockney, a choice has been made to turn Eliza into a northerner. An interesting choice as she is described throughout by her origins in down-and-out London. The production premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, one assumes that this is part of the reasoning behind the accent choice, however it brings to the surface the old argument about the north-south class divide. Gavin trips seamlessly between Yorkshire and RP and is an incredibly engaging and charming Eliza.

Reflecting London’s high society is Mrs. Higgins’ house, inspired by the exotic greenhouses of the turn of the 20th Century. Liza Savoy who plays Higgins’ long suffering mother is a vision in green (her gown reflecting her fern wallpaper and gardening obsession). Savoy embodies the status and common sense Mrs. Higgins needs to keep her insensitive son in check; with a down to earth streak that makes this woman, bound by her class, sympathetic and relatable.

This production is full of design and directional choices that are a real matter of taste for the audience. Pritchard chooses to have the first scene played with every character other than Eliza, having their voice dubbed by readings of the opening scene, at time re-wound and played back. It sets the play off to a slow start which picks up as it goes on. Recorded media plays a large part in the production, live video is used and project on the walls of Higgins’ house, some scenes are pre-recorder and projected making the audience feel more like are in a cinema rather than a theatre, and Eliza’s voice is recorded, mixed, messed about with and at one point turned into a dance track. This adds to the twenty-first century feel of the production.

This may be a play about language but ultimately this production is about class. At times the production hits this nail on the head, at times it drifts away from the core theme. Overall it is an engaging and intelligent production.

Runs until Saturday 11th March 2017 |Photo:  Manuel Harlan

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The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. 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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