Review: Pygmalion (West Yorkshire Playhouse and tour)

Sam Pritchard directs Headlong’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s play

Several productions at West Yorkshire Playhouse have recently been "re-imaginings" of familiar texts and identified as such. Pygmalion, a joint production with Headlong and Nuffield Southampton Theatres, is also re-imagined, but billed as "Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw", leading, no doubt, to some very confused audience members.

There are two main strands to the deconstruction. Before the start, mutterings are heard in which the sentence, "So you’ll read the flower girl" comes across. So nobody is really playing the character; the actors are playing people who are reading the parts – at least that’s how I interpret it.

If we should be under any illusions, the opening scene dispels them, characters lined up against a blank wall, spotlit individually, reciting lines which are also surtitled, while the sound engineers play merry games with distorting or speeding up speech or replacing the character’s speech with a different voice. The perverseness that characterises the whole production surfaces in a similar way in the optional embassy scene, with the small talk of the reception played on a sound loop, with many references to "the hairy Hungarian" – that is, bearded – voiced by a woman.

And that is the second strand in the deconstruction. This is a production about making sound and doing odd things with it. Eliza’s first appearance at Higgins’ apartment and the preceding conversation between Higgins and Pickering are punctuated by sound games. When Doolittle arrives, he has to resort to a mike to address the audience like a political rally during that splendidly confiding "undeserving poor" speech.

It is rather sad that the first laughs in a production of a very funny play come in a little sketch unrelated to the text, Eliza and Higgins throwing pronunciations and mispronunciations at each other, with a good gag on Keighley. The first laughs that relate to Shaw come in the following scene where Liza Sadovy is unaccountably allowed to play Mrs Higgins as Mrs Higgins – and does it rather well. She does it even better in the final act where Ian Burfield also has the chance to pace his Alfred Doolittle and is excellent. Raphael Sowole plays a likeable Pickering although Alex Beckett offers sloppy speech as Henry Higgins and emphasises the character’s selfishness at the expense of his charm.

There is much more clever stuff in Sam Pritchard’s production, film inserts, for instance, but it’s a relief when he allows Higgins and Eliza (a sympathetic Natalie Gavin) to just talk to each other.

Pygmalion runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 25 February, before touring the UK.