Just to remind you, the title of this play comes from the name of a Greek sculptor who, according to legend, carved a statue of a beautiful woman and then promptly fell in love with the result. Playwright George Bernard Shaw took the idea and applied it to the London of his day by having a professor of phonetics – Henry Higgins - teach a cockney flower seller – Eliza Doolittle – how to speak 'proper' creating, in a sense, his own 'work of art'.
It all starts with a torrential downpour in Covent Garden where Higgins is taking notes on the speech patterns of the locals. As he's conducting his research, he bumps into Colonel Pickering who is also interested in dialects and has come to London to meet Higgins. The next day, Eliza turns up at Higgins's home to arrange elocution lessons. Pickering wages a bet that Higgins can't pass off Eliza at a swanky, society affair, and Higgins promptly has Eliza move in with them at his house so he can start work on moulding her into a person who will be more socially acceptable.
The last time I saw this play was back in 2008 at the Old Vic. That production threw-up some issues with the lead character who turned-out to be rather childish, particularly in the presence of his mother. No such issues here, as Rupert Everett takes up the reigns giving us a darker, moodier kind of Higgins who, in Eliza's words, is 'cold, unfeeling and selfish'. Higgins is a bully who treats Eliza with little more than contempt, at least until her transformation is complete and she begins to command his respect. But this Higgins has a mysterious, almost sinister quality about him, exaggerated by his dark hair and beard and the long black coat he wears when we first meet him.
Kara Tointon, as Eliza, reminded me a great deal of Audrey Hepburn in the film version, particular during the opening scenes before her speech training begins. But Ms Tointon certainly makes her own mark when she turns up at Mrs Higgins's 'at home' tea party and starts telling the other guests about her aunt's death, drawing gales of laughter from the audience. Ms Tointon is also a formidable match for Higgins in the final scenes where she is quietly commanding and in control, and he is left floundering in rage.
Diana Rigg plays Higgins's long-suffering mother who knows all too well the failings in her offspring's character. Dame Diana is a warm, kindly and patient matriarch who readily takes Eliza under her wing. Peter Eyre makes a fine Colonel Pickering and Roberta Taylor is exceedingly well-cast as housekeeper, Mrs Pearce.
There's still plenty of humour and wit in 'Pygmalion', even if it is almost 100 years old. Though most people know the story, it's still got enough meat on it to maintain interest. On the whole, this production is satisfying and interesting, rather than exemplary or definitive. The design is adequate, rather than striking or remarkable, but the characterisations are good. My initial reservations about Rupert Everett's interpretation of Professor Higgins were short-lived, because he presents some interesting and complex layers to the character which I don't remember seeing before. And I also enjoyed Kara Tointon's Eliza, particularly in the second half where she really takes charge of both her character and the situation.
"This certainly isn’t a great Pygmalion, and it is sad to witness Everett failing to deliver on the promise of his gilded youth. But even a second-rate Pygmalion is better than no Pygmalion at all .
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Perfectly watchable. And yet the whole thing left me faintly underwhelmed.
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"While there are nice moments in Philip Prowse's production, we never feel there's enough at stake. "
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"A beautifully structured play of infinite subtlety...I've seen better revivals"
Michael Billington for The Guardian