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Christopher Walker reviews Pygmalion

It is always a challenge when a famous movie overshadows a theatre performance.

My Fair Lady looms so large in our cultural memories that some punters at the opening of Pygmalion couldn’t resist humming “I could have danced all night.”

It is indeed striking just how much of George Bernard Shaw’s original dialogue was squeezed into the musical version.

He himself lifted the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where a sculptor (Pygmalion) falls for the beautiful statue he has created and brings her to life.

However, in the Old Vic’s wonderful new production the two leads succeed in making the parts distinctly their own.

Bertie Carvel is a radically different Professor Higgins.

Patsy Ferran (Eliza Doolittle) and Bertie Carvel (Henry Higgins) in Pygmalion at The Old Vic 

His eccentricities bordering on psychopathic, particularly as he annunciates the 120 different vowel sounds in English.

When he confesses, wild-eyed, to being a confirmed bachelor images of incel serial killers flashed before my mind.

Likewise, Patsy Ferran is a surprisingly contemporary Eliza Doolittle, not least thanks to her trendy street rags designed by Stewart Laing.

She is in good voice and makes the transformation from guttersnipe to would-be Duchess easily.

Stewart gives her a wonderful Grecian evening dress (no doubt an allusion to that Greek statue).

John Marquez (Alfred Doolittle) in Pygmalion at The Old Vic

Stewart’s sets are a little less successful.

Higgins instructs Eliza in what appears to be a recording studio complete with microphones and cork walls.

Large versions of children’s wooden shapes suggest the pillars of Covent Garden, at least to the broad minded, and the Embassy Ball, Eliza’s final test.

I was rather glad we’re spared ‘The Ascot Scene’ in the original, as otherwise we might have had some wooden rocking horses.

Other players were also strong, and more traditionally directed by Richard Jones.

Bertie Carvel (Henry Higgins) in Pygmalion at The Old Vic

Michael Gould as Professor Pickering, Penny Layden as housekeeper Mrs. Pearce and the wonderful Sylvestra le Touzel as Higgin’s mother.

John Marquez almost steals the show as Alfred Doolittle.

Less traditional were the number of women sporting moustaches at the Embassy Ball.

The ending in the original is infamously unromantic, and there were cries of despair from one lady in the audience.

I felt Eliza had a narrow escape.

Tickets: https://www.oldvictheatre.com/stage/event/pygmalion

 

Pictures: Manuel Harlan

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