'Pygmalion' review – a zippy staging of Shaw's play with two tremendous central performances

Read our four-star review of Pygmalion, starring Bertie Carvel and Patsy Ferran, now in performances at the Old Vic to 28 October.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

When Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe turned George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion into My Fair Lady in 1956, they took a satirical polemic about class and feminism set in the present day and turned it into lavish entertainment based in a romanticised Edwardian era.

This production comes a little over a year after Bartlett Sher’s production of My Fair Lady at the London Coliseum and I have to admit to being a populist who’s surprised when the songs don’t come, but the original is still hugely entertaining, and still relevant today as accent snobbery continues to be rife.

Richard Jones’s zippy staging combines Shaw’s original play text and his 1938 screenplay (allowing us to see the lessons and ambassador’s reception that aren’t in the original), and isn’t set in any particular historical period. This scattershot approach to design yields mixed results; it’s a deliberate rejection of Edwardian elegance, though the attempt to be universal does at times slide into a hodgepodge.

Stewart Laing’s sets call to mind a modern university. Eliza is saved from her quilted jacket and dirty trainers but infantalised by wearing a gymslip; she looks like a Grecian goddess at the ambassador’s reception and, after an all-night drive with her puppyish suitor Freddy (Taheen Modak), dons an elegant silk shirt and slacks as an emancipated woman. Higgins, on the other hand, never changes his pullover ensemble, even for formal occasions.

What makes the production special is tremendous central performances by Bertie Carvel and Patsy Ferran. Leslie Howard’s upbeat portrayal has been overshadowed in the public consciousness by Rex Harrison’s irascible take and Bertie Carvel’s Henry Higgins is insufferably excitable (that's meant as a compliment).

The suggestion that Higgins is neurodivergent isn’t new but this Higgins operates in another dimension. If he didn’t have independent means to live on and indulge his passion, he’d probably be put away. A cross between a hyperactive and precocious child trying to be impress his teacher with how clever he is and a fussy maiden aunt out of PG Wodehouse, he’s definitely not a “man of the world”.

Patsy Ferran is an Eliza who excels at the physical comedy, whether being bribed with chocolates or removing her gloves with her teeth. She appears fragile and bird-like but is capable of violence when defending herself and possesses razor-sharp intelligence. The production is framed by a heavily rouged woman who’s selling herself rather bunches of violets and has the same haughty, impassive expression that Eliza wears when she’s on show.

There’s no possibility of romance between this Eliza and Higgins (Shaw would approve). Eliza’s point that she grew up like Higgins, essentially feral, is particularly pertinent: their different accents and level of wealth and education makes all the difference in how the world treats them.

There’s strong support from Sylvestra Le Touzel, whose Mrs Higgins is a much more bohemian and bluestocking-ish take than usual, like a lady novelist or the principal of women’s college.

John Marquez’s Alfred Doolittle is more morose than music hall, bringing a solemn dignity to his intuitive rhetoric. We can see where Eliza gets it from. Penny Layden’s Mrs Pearce, more of a lab technician than a housekeeper, gives as good as she gets and shows genuine concern for Eliza, and Michael Gould is a gallant Colonel Pickering.

Shaw provided a long epilogue explaining that Eliza marries Freddy and Jones honours this with a clever coda in which a skilled professional woman has to hide behind a man – frustrating, but arguably better than being turned into another old bachelor.

Pygmalion is at the Old Vic through 28 October. Book Pygmalion tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Pygmalion (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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