The themes in Pygmalion, written by George Bernard Shaw in 1912, are still as relevant today as they were then and not just in the UK but globally too. A hundred years later, issues such as the funding for education, social mobility, the changing nature of spoken English (or any other living language) as well as the status of women in a rapidly fast moving world are being discussed and debated in emerging economies as well as in the developed world.
The play opens with much aplomb with foreboding music and the plush Edwardian curtains seem to have a character of their own. Kara Tointon makes her West End debut as Eliza Doolittle and, by curtain call time, she has most of the audience enraptured by her brilliant performance. She is proof that there is life outside of Eastenders. Her ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ character and cockney are just as realistic as her transformation into a sophisticated and confident woman who reflects on the choices open to her. She comes into her own in Act 3 where she arrives at Mrs Higgins’ house and engages in ‘small talk’ with the host and other visitors. Tointon plays off the incongruity between her polished English accent and the frowned upon subject matter with superb comic timings.
Tointon’s Eliza Doolittle also outshines Rupert Everett’s Professor Henry Higgins. Higgins doesn’t sound nearly as posh enough and he, at times, doesn’t look it either. I was close enough to the stage to see him wearing a stained coat and a suit made of inferior fabric. Everett also fluffed a few of his lines last night, famously getting the King mixed up with the Queen, which he corrected instantly but given that he was in the original production at Chichester last summer, it wasn’t easily excusable. Nonetheless, his Higgins is haughty and disdainful towards the world at large, as he should be, and funny in the scene where he asks Eliza to recite the alphabet. On the whole, Everett gives us a Higgins who is big on anger and small on reflection. In the final scene, it is difficult to be sure if Everett’s Higgins understands that he lacks emotional intelligence. One gets the impression that he will continue with his old ways, however.
The supporting cast give splendid performances. Diana Rigg is wonderful as the stateswoman-like Mrs Higgins; Peter Eyre’s Colonel Pickering is paternalistic and loveable; and Roberta Taylor’s Mrs Pearce maintains the tight balance between indulging and chiding Professor Higgins. A note in the programme mentions that ‘owing to the indisposition of Simon Ward’ Brendan Hooper is to play Alfred Doolittle. The Telegraph’s Mandrake speculates that there will be late joiner to this cast but Hooper’s ‘undeserving poor’ Alfred Doolittle is impressive and I hope he continues in that role for the remaining duration of this West End production.
Directed and designed by Philip Prowse, the Edwardian costumes are delightful. The only exception to this is in the final Act when Higgins turns up in a turtle neck top underneath a big winter coat. Higgins’ wardrobe needs a thorough examination to ascertain its suitability to his character.
Minor niggles about Higgins aside, this is a good revival that shows how remarkably different and superior it is to the musical My Fair Lady. Some will come to watch Kara Tointon and some for Rupert Everett but I hope all will leave crediting Bernard Shaw for a superb play that has much resonance in our world as it did in his.
Pygmalion is on at the Garrick Theatre until 3 September. Running time is approximately 2 hours and 15 mins with a 20 minute interval. Box Office: 0844 412 4662.