Wednesday, August 24, 2011

It appears I have let a few theatre trips slip by unnoticed although it's certainly not because I disliked them.

A few weeks ago we went to see George Bernard Shaw's most popular play PYGMALION at the Garrick Theatre with the intriguing casting of Rupert Everett as Henry Higgins, Kara Tointon as Eliza Doolittle and Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins.
The production was directed and designed by Philip Prowse who used to be the artistic director of the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. Back in the day I saw a few of Prowse's London productions - although none which featured Everett who I have surprisingly never seen on stage before.

Prowse's productions always had a visual swagger but his directorial skills never seemed to come across as being particularly incisive or having much joy in them. Here though he gave us a production which moved with speed and a twinkle in the eye. Prowse's design was also slightly more restrained than usual - the only excess being a very obviously theatrical red swagged curtain.
I enjoyed Rupert Everett's bullish and bullying Professor Higgins, taking great delight in his challenge of turning a gauche cockney flower girl into a polite lady while blithely ignoring the fact that Eliza might have feelings as well as dropped aitches. He had good chemistry with Peter Eyre's humane Col. Pickering and in his scenes with Diana Rigg, as his quietly caustic mother, he showed that here was one woman he couldn't dominate. His handling of the final confrontation scene was expertly done as Higgins shifts from exasperated humour to a sniping combativeness.

Kara Tointon certainly made an impressive West End debut as Eliza but as seems to be the norm for all actresses playing this role, her Cockernee accent was totally over-the-top. I've never seen the text but even if the lines are written all Gawd Blimey it would be nice for a director just once to have the actress play the role in an ordinary London accent. She was very effective in the tea party scene where Eliza test-runs her 'proper' accent to the puzzlement of all present and she certainly held her own in the final argument with Higgins. The one thing lacking was any noticeable chemistry between the two leads. Needless to say Diana Rigg - who was herself an onstage Eliza in the 1970s opposite Alec McCowan - stole her scenes as Mrs. Higgins, quietly exasperated at her son's crassness but capable of cutting him to the quick with a polite put-down. It must be said however that Prowse did her no favours with some awful costumes! Michael Feast also had great fun as Eliza's guttersnipe father Alfred with a fine line in bristling indignation - especially when he is left a legacy that catapults him into the dreaded middle class.

I am not a Shaw lover to be honest - that thumping tone always finding it's way through the prose - but PYGMALION still knows exactly how to lull it's audience into social comedy security before challenging them with the debate about the war of the sexes.

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