Pygmalion at London’s Old Vic Theatre, directed by Richard Jones, will be a familiar tale for fans of My Fair Lady. The film-makers basically took George Bernard Shaw’s script, and added the music. So the story remains faithful, however, despite the tried-and-true storyline, this production presents a mixed bag.
The story revolves around Professor Henry Higgins, a phonetics expert, who takes on the challenge of transforming Eliza Doolittle, a working-class flower girl, into a refined lady by teaching her proper speech and manners. Through Higgins’ rigorous training, Eliza undergoes a remarkable transformation, leading to social and personal conflicts. Shaw’s work delves into the complexities of social mobility and the power of language in shaping one’s destiny, ultimately questioning societal norms and class distinctions.
The production heavily relies on its lead actors, Patsy Ferran as Eliza Dolittle and Bertie Carvel as Henry Higgins, who occasionally seem burdened by the shadows of Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. While they give commendable performances, the pressure to emulate these iconic predecessors is palpable.
One strength of the show lies in its supporting cast. Although not all have mastered the crucial Received Pronunciation required for the script, they add depth to the production. However, the time period setting is puzzling. The 1910s backdrop conflicts with sets and costumes that feel more like they belong in the fifties or seventies, leaving the audience in temporal limbo.
Added to this are some odd choices in the costume designs, even after Higgins’ transformation, Eliza isn’t dressed in anything a Duchess might be seen wearing, and even more puzzling is that at the same ball Higgins is wearing the same clothes he’s been wearing in every other scene – couldn’t they stretch to a tux?
The set design itself is uninspiring, resembling hastily assembled plywood. There’s a lack of grit in Covent Garden and no opulence in Wimpole Street, so this Pygamalion completely fails to capture the stark socio-economic contrasts of Shaw’s original vision.
One significant drawback is the pacing. The production drags in some early scenes then again in its final scenes, testing the audience’s patience and potentially diluting the impact of the resolution. While Bertie Carvel as Higgins and Patsy Ferran as Eliza deliver enjoyable performances, we all know these two exceptional actors could have been pushed further. Taheen Modak shines as Freddy Eynsford Hill, but this character isn’t as prominent as it is the musical adaptation so we don’t get to see as much of Modak as we would like.
Despite having every opportunity, including an impressive cast, this Pygmalion can’t quite elevate its status beyond bland revival.