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‘Pygmalion’ – Classic tale has reasonable first half but star cast really impress in second

‘Pygmalion’ –  Classic tale has reasonable first half but star cast really impress in second

In the Greek myth, Pygmalion was a sculptor who created a statue – Galatea, a beautiful woman and he falls in love with his creation. He then asks the Goddess Aphrodite to breathe life into her…now playing at The Old Vic in London…

by Suman Bhuchar

IT IS A STORY that has endured over centuries and in 1913 the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, wrote his version which looks at whether it is possible to jump the class system.

Most people are familiar with the movie version, ‘My Fair Lady’ (1964), made famous by Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn but this production combines his original play text with Shaw’s own 1938 ‘Pygmalion’ screenplay.

Eliza Doolittle (Patsy Ferran) and Henry Higgins (Bertie Carvel)

Two confirmed bachelors – an arrogant pompous Henry Higgins played by Bertie Carvel and Colonel Pickering (Michael Gould), a well-mannered gentleman, bet that they can ‘convert’ a flower girl named Eliza Doolittle (Patsy Ferran) and pass her off as a duchess in six months.

However, all Eliza wants, is to own a flower shop and retain her independence, while the men wish to show off their creation.

The overall premise is that your accent can give you away. As soon as you open your mouth people can place where you’re from in the UK and if you change the way you speak, you can be assured of class mobility.

Directed by Richard Jones, the opening scene is a frantic pace of activity – the hustle and bustle of men in bowler hats, women in fur scarves – all converging under a columned portico in Covent Garden to shelter from the rain – and is accompanied to the sound of a piano playing (by Simon Chamberlain).

When we first see Eliza she has a really harsh voice speaking ‘estuary English’ proclaiming, “I am a good girl I am”, and hiding under an anorak.

It’s clear we are at beginning of 20th century from the design and costume look by Stewart Laing – with very geometrical shapes, square shaped pink palettes, and high ceilings.

Eliza is virtually locked in Higgins’ pad slaving away, learning linguistics and how to say her vowels correctly, as well as being a de-facto assistant to Higgins.

The company in ‘Pygmalion’

Initially, Ferran is loud and grating to the ear and some of the audience found the accent difficult but her Eliza grows on us, as she is an independent spirit.

Later, she is taken to the home of Mrs Higgins (Sylvestra Le Touzel) to test out whether she can “pass” as genteel class – it works beautifully but she can’t keep the conversation going beyond two subjects, the weather and health.

The scene when Eliza’s dad, Alfred Doolittle (a wonderful interlude by John Marquez) makes an appearance and talks about the class system and what the right price to charge for his daughter staying with the gentlemen, is entertaining.

It’s all very shouty in the first act and the second act is more enjoyable. Eliza is at an ambassador’s ball and people marvel at who or what she is…

And ultimately what happens brings us to the crunch point – what will happen to a girl who now has a good education and no money?

In Edwardian England, it appears that only working class working women have independence and the middle-and upper classes have to rely on the men-folk for money.

Shaw raises the question, but he didn’t really provide an answer and the ending is left ambiguous.

This production doesn’t totally gel but the satire about class mobility is still relevant today.

ACV rating: *** (out of five)

Top picture: Rohan Rakhit (Ensemble) Doolittle (Ferran) and Colonel Pickering (Michael Gould)

All pictures: ©TheOldVic


‘Pygmalion’ by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Richard Jones and starring Bertie Carvel and Patsy Ferran at The Old Vic, (September 6) until October 28
The Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, London SE1 8NB

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture