Photo: Manuel Harlan

We had high hopes for this revival of Pygmalion at The Old Vic: with a hugely-talented cast and creative putting this show together – directed by Olivier-winner Richard Jones and starring Olivier-winners Bertie Carvel and Patsy Ferran in the lead roles – this new staging of George Bernard Shaw’s masterpiece has, on paper, everything required for a truly memorable night at the theatre. Sadly these component parts don’t quite add up to coherent whole, the end result being something disjointed and disappointing.

For those unfamiliar with the play, Pygmalion is the source material for the classic musical and film My Fair Lady. We are introduced to phonetics teacher Henry Higgins (Bertie Carvel); a pompous, eccentric character who likes a challenge, he takes it upon himself to transform working-class cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle (Patsy Ferran), whom he bumps into by chance at Covent Garden, into a lady – or to create the illusion of a lady, at least – by teaching her to speak properly.

We’ll start with the positives: Patsy Ferran is a delight. We previously saw her in the West End revival of Summer and Smoke, which we described as a “revelatory performance” and “utterly spellbinding” – it was this particular performance that won her the 2019 Olivier Award for Best Actress. She is undoubtedly the highlight of Pygmalion – amusing and charming, she has an ability to light up the stage and steals the scene during act one’s tea party, which is the most enjoyable sketch in the play. While we don’t think this role particularly stretches her abilities this is a fine performance nonetheless.

Unfortunately we never really bought into Bertie Carvel as Eliza’s teacher Henry Higgins. While, yes, he is meant to be a bit quirky, a bit of an oddball, sometimes unpleasant, this performance seems too extreme – Higgins is unusual and unlikeable, which makes buying into his relationships with the other characters a bit difficult. The bond which eventually develops between Henry and Eliza doesn’t feel authentic, it feels more of a surprise, and not a pleasant one.

There are also a number of odd staging choices which seem more strange for the sake of it, as opposed to particularly adding anything. There’s a protracted sketch where Henry is enunciating vowels – it’s weird, but not in a “this is unusual and I quite like it” way, more of a “why is this happening and will it be over soon?” way. The audience response was mostly silence, interspersed occasionally with nervous laughter – it was quite uncomfortable and hugely overstayed its welcome. The ambassador’s party scene during the second act also has some unusual staging choices which feel completely unnecessary.

It all adds up to an overall experience which is somewhat underwhelming. There are individually strong elements – the tea party scene, in which Eliza inadvertently invents ‘the new small talk’, is objectively excellent – and there are a number of amusing punchlines. But even an enjoyable performance from Patsy Ferran can’t save this unusual and ultimately unsatisfying revival.

GAY TIMES gives Pygmalion – 2/5

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