The problem with Pygmalion is it doesn’t have enough good tunes. OK, I’m being slightly facetious, but so entrenched in the public consciousness is the movie musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s classic tale that it can’t help but hang over any attempt to stage the original play.
This particular handicap is not quite overcome by Philip Prowse’s current West End production, a revised version of his staging of the play for Chichester Festival Theatre last year. The comparison is not helped by the fact that Kara Tointon’s performance as Eliza Doolittle initially seems almost entirely modelled on Audrey Hepburn’s, not only laying claim to the worst cockney accent since Dick Van Dyke cleaned a chimney but also sacrificing any chance to really make the role her own. She does manage to raise plenty of laughs – her painfully self-conscious attempt at parlour small talk is a stand-out moment – but she seems to spend so much time concentrating on her voice that there is little energy left over for nuance or shading of character.
Rupert Everett’s Henry Higgins fares little better. While possessing plenty of acerbic charm, and again generating his fair share of laughs, there is something self-consciously superficial in his performance, so you never feel there is any real emotional depth to him, despite the uncharacteristically dark ending.
Neither performer is helped by a production that seems to move from one set piece to another without any sense of character evolution. It is therefore difficult to feel invested in her development or her fate: one rankles at her treatment out of a basic human instinct that it is wrong to treat another person as an experiment or a toy, rather than from any sympathy for her as a character.
Though the other cast members deliver able performances they are equally hemmed in by the production’s limitations: Diana Rigg is predictably splendid as Higgins’ sharp tongued, long-suffering mother, and Peter Eyre as Colonel Pickering has plenty of charm, although he too never seems to build any real rapport with Eliza. Michael Feast has a ball as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s ne’er do well father, even though he is saddled with an accent almost as bad as hers, while Roberta Taylor’s housekeeper Mrs Pearce is suitably disapproving of the whole affair. While Marty Cruickshank and Helen Millar have fun as society lady Mrs Eynsford-Hill and her daughter, Peter Sandys-Clarke has little to do as Freddie but simper briefly over the newly ‘improved’ Eliza, making him even less attractive a proposition than is normally the case.
The production is both designed and directed by Prowse, and he makes some odd decisions in both roles. While the lavish sets are beautiful, if not particularly original, having Rupert Everett switch from period costume to a black polo neck and duster coat for the final scenes is distracting: we are left wondering why, at Eliza’s desertion, Higgins has suddenly decided to reincarnate himself as a beatnik poet. The pacing is also slightly off: having rattled through Eliza’s transformation at such a pace it’s hard to properly engage with it, the overly talky denouement seems to go on for an eternity: but by then, it’s simply too late: you can’t make an audience start to care in the final five minutes.
Overall, then, for all its glamour and not inconsiderable charm, this is a production that is at its core as hollow as the societal trappings and double standards it satirises.