The Greek myth of Pygmalion has had many interpretations in modern culture, not least in My Fair Lady and this, the show it was based on, George Bernard Shaw’s incarnation. Following the story of Henry Higgins (Rupert Everett) in his greatest exploit as a phoneticist in training a flower-seller Cockney he met in Covent Garden to pass as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. The story, which you know going in from the title, is that Henry Higgins falls in love with his project, Miss Eliza Doolittle and the climax is whether or not they can reconcile their differences and admit their feelings to each other.
Having the designer and director being the same person, Philip Prowse, worked well for the show, as the transitions between the sets worked very well indeed being very slick and making a good use of lighting in the processes. The back wall that breaks in the middle to reveal a different stage shape is well used and supports the overall image of the show very well as one that is slick and refined, just as the language and use of vocabulary is in the script. All in all it was a good job from Philip Prowse.
It’s a good job well done by most of the cast as well, most notably Kara Tointon as Eliza Doolittle. The progression of Eliza from Cockney flower girl to refined duchess allowed Tointon to explore a number of different personas with the same character and she grasps this opportunity with both hands. The script invites the part to be a caricature of the personas, illustrating the differences between them and the progression from a to b and Tointon holds nothing back. From her first introduction to her final exit she is compelling and hilarious in her part, blustering round the stage like an angered wasp at the start and stalking around it like a proud aristocat at the end. Considering that this was her West End debut, I am excited about her future prospects stalking the boards here in London (and not just on EastEnders).
Rupert Everett is one of the main draws of this show and rightly so. From the very beginning his character wields a latent authority that he capitalises on throughout, commanding the stage with a forceful, devil-may-care attitude. Everett plays Higgins as a dark and brooding man, someone who cares little for social convention, or at the very least fails to see how his behavior doesn’t comply with it and he fits the role perfectly. His relationship on stage with Tointon is simply fun to watch. Both are larger than life characters and watching them clash is entertaining and his railing against improper use of language and speech is entertaining to those who have similar gripes.
Two supporting cast members stand out from the rest and they are Michael Feast and Peter Eyre. Feast plays the father of Eliza Doolittle, who marches in and argues against being drawn into the devious middle-class morality that threatens him, a fair and less-than-honest working-class man. Again something of a caricature he adds a dynamism to the proceedings that is purely comical and different to the relationship between Henry and Eliza. Peter Eyre plays the colleague of Higgins in his field of phonetics, Colonel Pickering and he is himself the exact opposite of Higgins. Where Higgins is dark and brooding, contrary to convention, Pickering is light and noble, exemplifying the manners and ‘good solid upbringing’ of the upper classes as Shaw portrays them. Eyre’s contributions act as a wonderful contradiction to Everett and they work together very well on stage. Eyre adds a sort of unspoken and unacknowledged gentility to the stage that is necessary in the development of Tointon’s character.
Roberta Taylor plays a strong part in the action as well as Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs Pearce who has the unenviable job of having to clean up after him and keep track of his life for him. She exerts an authority of her own, particularly over Higgins, that is well-embodied on stage by Taylor and Everett together. The whole supporting cast do very fine jobs indeed, but they are clearly merely there to highlight the dynamics between the leads as opposed to adding to the play itself, with the exception of Alfred Doolittle and Colonel Pickering.
The story itself is very short and I think this is harmful to the show as the major drawback. The plot is uneventful and since you know going in what the basic storyline will be it falls on how the inevitable conclusion comes to pass to stand up as the justification of the play. I’m not sure it succeeds. The relationships are well developed in the script but I don’t think the situation and progression is explored fully enough by a long way, instead being something of a whistle-stop tour through the six months that the play covers and since there is no intrigue surrounding the plot, this isn’t enough to justify the play in my mind. This is compounded by the brevity of the show that leaves plenty of unused time to develop this missing element that has simply not been taken.
The cast and crew do a very good job with a script that could have done a lot more to help them, leading me to give it a good review. However, for the ticket prices they are charging and the length of the show I wouldn’t recommend you go and see it unless you are already a fan of Tointon, Everett, Shaw or Pygmalion itself.
Written by George Bernard Shaw; Directed by Philip Prowse; At the Garrick Theatre; Starring Kara Tointon, Rupert Everett, Diana Rigg, Michael Feast, Peter Eyre, Roberta Taylor; Runs from 12 May 11 - 03 September 11.
John Ord (15/06/2011)