Right, let’s begin with a quick guide to story and context. Pygmalion is Bernard Shaw’s most popular play. My Fair Lady without the music. The one in which an arrogant professor of phonetics, wagers he can make a society lady out of a ‘common’ Bradford flower girl, amidst a host of 21st century electronic wizardry..
Bradford flower girl? Electronic wizardry? Wait a minute! Shouldn’t she be a Cockney? Wasn’t the play written in 1913? OK. Let’s start again.
Director Sam Pritchard projects Shaw’s play into what he calls Pygmalion-land, a floating time zone swinging between Edwardian manners, video inserts, voice sampling and hip-hop. But traditionalists: please continue reading. The play is full of current relevance.
On a stage which at the start resembles a huge fence with a horizontal slit opening, modernity is instantly apparent. In the first scene the actors mime to recorded voices: voices opposite to the type and sex of their character. ‘Look’ Pritchard is saying via jokey presentation, ‘it’s still true, we still judge people by how they speak.’
The fence becomes a screen projection of Eliza in a modern taxi and at home where, with an odd but engaging addition, she launches into a full production version of Wouldn’t It Be Lovely from My Fair Lady. This and other filmed offerings attractively open out the plot, beyond domestic scenes with added playful technology.
It works quite well on its own terms. There’s no rain in Spain, but there is added humour. For example contemporary fun is injected as Eliza pronounces words beamed onto a wall, whilst the test-drive of the new Eliza into polite society is set in a lush futuristic ‘drawing room’ resembling an aquarium.
Of Edwardian elegance there is no trace, and the nearest Eliza gets to a princess dress is a sophisticated jump-suit. Shaw on the other hand, knew how to have his cake and eat it, writing a play which is basically Cinderella with a moral twist. Here. a lot of the cake – of the enjoyable struggle and triumph of Eliza’s transformation, gets lost.
Tellingly therefore, the close is played out in 1913 style, with just Professor Higgins and Eliza on an empty stage. And it’s all about Bernard Shaw’s wit and insight. The couple are in love and in confusion. Alex Beckett’s bullying, well-spoken diamond geezer of a Higgins is suitably undone by emotion. Whilst Natalie Gavin as Eliza, notably seizes her opportunity to become Shaw’s ideal, sprightly independent woman.
Commendations to Flaminia Cinque and Liza Sadovy for inhabiting the spirit of the women who protect Eliza. But the sub-plot about Eliza’s father’s philosophy of the undeserving poor, is thrown away beyond the efforts of Ian Burfield. Raphael Sowole however, lends gentle charm to assistant life-coach Colonel Pickering, despite an exaggerated accent.
So it’s two cheers for innovative effort, amidst regrets about the missing period elegance. Sophisticates will agree, a little reluctantly, that the Love Actually ending given to the musical would be out of place. But couldn’t we have had just one exotic ball-gown? And I still don’t know why Eliza had a Yorkshire accent. ★★★☆☆ Derek Briggs at the Everyman in Cheltenham, 29th March 2017