PYGMALION at the Old Vic
“Carvel is all stooping eccentricity with a touch of Reginald Perrin”
When George Bernard Shaw wrote “Pygmalion” in 1912, its West End premiere was delayed due to the leading lady’s nervous breakdown. Instead, the German translation opened in Vienna followed by the New York production where it was described as a ‘love story with brusque diffidence and a wealth of humour’. Richard Jones’ revival at the Old Vic retains the ‘wealth of humour’, has exchanged the diffidence for a bold confidence, but as for ‘love story’ – that’s gone completely out the window. There is a mechanical edge to it that, despite being well-oiled and finely tuned, partially obscures its beating heart.
It opens quite spectacularly, to the angular, staccato strains of Tony Gayle’s modernist jazz chords – perhaps a touch too modern for the already updated setting. Stewart Laing’s circuit board backdrops are a bit of a puzzle, unless you accept that this may be a clever twist on the phrase ‘Code-Switching’: the term applied to changing your voice and dialect to fit into a new social environment. Jones’ production fully takes on board the concept of Professor Henry Higgins’ social experiment, and exudes the same detachment as though we are watching a presentation through glass.
It does enable us to focus on the central, magnified performances. Led by Bertie Carvel’s Henry Higgins and Patsy Ferran’s Eliza Doolittle, they cannot be accused of shying away. Carvel is all stooping eccentricity with a touch of Reginald Perrin though less unwitting. Preoccupied and arrogant, Carvel eradicates everything that might be likeable about his character. A character that stretches the patience of those initially loyal to him. Penny Layden gives one of the more heartfelt performances as his housekeeper, Mrs Pearce, and Sylvestra Le Touzel captures the exasperation of Higgin’s mother. But we are frustrated by Carvel’s Higgins remaining so impervious to everyone and everything around him.
“The urge to update and radicalise is always going to compete with the option of playing it safe.”
Carvel’s performance would steal the show if it weren’t for Ferran’s spirited no-nonsense Eliza Doolittle. Aware from the start that she is a vehicle for the professor’s sport, she is pragmatic and steely enough to rise above it. Ferran never loses her grip on humility, however, which ultimately gives her the upper hand. Hers is the one true draught of passion that disturbs the otherwise emotionally static production.
The best illustrations of George Bernard’s Shaw satire come from the supporting roles. Times have changed since Shaw wrote his ground-breaking play. Class and social mobility are much more blurred and the way one speaks is no longer a definition of one’s status. But other observations stand out and ring true. John Marquez, as Eliza’s bin-man father who “can’t afford morals”, is a delight to watch and is a master at comic delivery.
It is a very familiar story, but ‘ay, there’s the rub’. The urge to update and radicalise is always going to compete with the option of playing it safe. This production falls somewhere between the two. Whether it’s a direct consequence or not, we are tempted to question the sincerity and authenticity. Yet it is still a hugely entertaining piece of theatre, dominated by commanding performances. Despite being a little confused as to what time period it is being set in, we are indeed reminded of the timeless nature of the play and that its appeal will never go away.
PYGMALION at the Old Vic
Reviewed on 27th September 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Manuel Harlan
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