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Review: Pygmalion, Old Vic Theatre - Performances designed to extract laughs rather than meaning

Pygmalion old vic

This was my first Pygmalion. I've not seen My Fair Lady either (musical 🥴), but I know of it, I know the story, so I was curious to see a production.

This Old Vic production kicks off with a stagey bustle of posh people sheltering from the rain outside the Royal Opera House with snatches of different conversations, complaints and commands to find taxis.

Flower girl Eliza Doolittle's basket (Patsy Ferran) gets knocked to the ground, and, cor blimey guv'nor, it all kicks off.

Eliza is thrown into the path of arrogant and rude linguist Henry Higgins (Bertie Carvel), who has a knack for pinpointing exactly where people are from by their accents.

If she can learn to speak 'proper', Eliza has a chance of working in a flower shop rather than hawking flowers on the streets. She solicits elocution lessons from Higgins, who simultaneously wagers a bet with Colonel Pickering (Michael Gould) that he can pass Eliza off as a lady.

It is a play where prejudices and concerns expressed in the early scenes hang over the story. It's not a case of whether Eliza will 'transform' into a lady but what happens as a consequence. Indeed the transformation is seemingly rapid, but more on that later.

One of my favourite scenes is Eliza's first outing, where she's nailed the posh accent, but her language is natural to her upbringing. It's cleverly performed by Ferran.

It's also one of my favourite scenes because it's when the sensible Mrs Higgins, Henry's mother, appears played by the brilliant Sylvestra Le Touzel.

But the main reason I liked it is because it's the first time the play calms down. Up until that point - about halfway through - the performances from Ferran, Carvel and Alfred Marquez, who plays Eliza's dad, are big and animated to the point of characature.

The performances seem designed to extract laughs but, as a consequence, distract from the story.

It made the relationship between Eliza and Higgins one of loud static and little else, not helped by Eliza's seemingly quick transition from 'cor blimey guv'nor' to 'posh'.

There is little insight into the dynamics between the two, which diminishes Eliza's journey (and Higgins') and makes the relationship relatively flat - and inexplicable. It lessens the impact of the ending, although I did silently cheer when Eliza turned the table on her instructor.

The irony is that there were times when it felt slow for a play that has been cut down to 2 hours straight through (a note from the theatre said an interval may be added).

It lingers inexplicably on certain scenes. For example, watching Carvel gurning his way through different vowel sounds. (It was amusing to start with.)

While I enjoyed the second half of the play more if you can't already tell, this production of Pygmalion didn't particularly float my boat. Underneath the exaggerated performances is an interesting story about class, snobbishness and women's independence. So, I'd like to see another production to see if that came through more.

However, I would add that the audience was bubbling with laughter, so you might have a better experience and, as a preview performance, things may calm down a bit.

I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️ and a half stars

Pygmalion, Old Vic Theatre

Written by George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Richard Jones

Starring Patsy Ferran & Bertie Carvel

Running time during preview: 1 hour 55 without an interval (but that might change)

Booking until 28 Oct and for more information and to buy tickets head to the Old Vic website.

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