Last year’s Chichester Festival Theatre production of Shaw’s Pygmalion has been cunningly re-scaled to fit snugly into the Garrick, though we miss that great moment when Higgins’s study rose majestically on a lift into the cavernous arena.
Otherwise, Philip Prowse’s staging and design are as striking as ever, and Rupert Everett reprises a Higgins of dark and sinister intent, both Mummy’s boy and phonetician-as-Frankenstein, and probably not a man of honour “where women are concerned.”
There’s a lot to be said for the idea that television soap stars and successful X Factor contestants are the Eliza Doolittles of our day. But Kara Tointon, who won Strictly Come Dancing and fell in love with her Russian dance coach and partner, transcends her own stereotype.
She’s remarkably assured on the stage, blessed with malleable good looks and tremendous lung power, and she makes of Eliza a truly feisty opponent to Everett’s self-obsessed, grandiloquent Higgins.
Their big showdown, played facing each other while seated on the red banquettes that are endemic to Prowse’s “theatrical” setting of red swags, false prosceniums and mottled pillars, is as electrifying as any version of that scene I can recall.
Two insertions, snipped from Shaw’s own expanded cinematic text, poeticise the part Peter Sandys-Clarke’s puppyish Freddy Eynsford-Hill plays in Eliza’s story: the couple are seen dancing, briefly, at the Embassy Ball; and, finally, getting married in a shower of rose petals, leaving Higgins furious, scowling and more hawk-like than ever.
Peter Eyre is an affable, amusedly tolerant Colonel Pickering, and Marty Cruickshank a pleasingly cut-glass, scratchy Mrs Eynsford-Hill. New to the cast are Diana Rigg – once a wonderful Eliza herself, a few yards down the road at the Noël Coward (then the Albery) – as an imperial, husky-voiced Mrs Higgins, and Roberta Taylor as a watchful, severe Mrs Pearce with a hint of Mrs Danvers.
Michael Feast has been recruited as Alfred Doolittle, replacing the indisposed Simon Ward at the last minute. Unsurprisingly, he plays in a bit of a panic at the moment, but it’s an interesting suggestion that he proves his gift of the gab to Higgins by dousing him in a Niagara of hectic conversation.
Peter Hall bathed his Covent Garden scene in Elgar; Prowse plumps for Wagner, quoting both The Ride of the Valkyrie and Tristan to raise the operatic stakes in Higgins’s campaign. His scarlet-flavoured production looks lovely, too, in his beautiful, sleekly Edwardian costumes and the expressive lighting of Gerry Jenkinson.