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Review Round-up: Is Pygmalion a Shaw Bet?

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George Bernard Shaw's best known play, Pygmalion, opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre last night (20 July 2010, previews from 9 July) in a double billing with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Pygmalion's story, Professor Henry Higgins betting he can coach Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle to be passed off as a Lady, has become all too familiar in recent years, not least thanks to the musical adaptation My Fair Lady.

Rupert Everett leads the cast as Professor Higgins with Stephanie Cole his aristocratic mother. Also in the cast are Peter Eyre as Colonel Pickering and Honeysuckle Weeks as Eliza Doolittle. Philip Prowse designs and directs.

Did this starry revival of Shaw's 1913 classic manage to sweet talk the critics?

  • Maxwell Cooter on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – "Philip Prowse's ornate staging has the look and feel of a Victorian toy theatre; it’s opulent but there’s a coldness at the heart. Rupert Everett doesn’t look comfortable as Higgins…. in fact, he acts too young ... Shaw says that his irascibility should be tempered with good humour – there’s little sign of that in Everett. Eliza... struggles with the cockney vowels in the first scenes - many of her opening lines are inaudible… If she’s a struggle to be heard five rows from the front, who knows how she’ll sound up in the gods. Stephanie Cole... steals both of her scenes and gets most of the big laughs… and there’s a very solid Colonel Pickering from Peter Eyre. There's one aspect of the production that's very strange – there are two intervals in a not very long play ... Perhaps Chichester bar takings are down and they need to drum up extra business but at a time when two-hour shows are put on without a break, this smacks of self-indulgence."
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – "Shaw's miraculous play... has escaped from the shadow of the Lerner and Loewe musical ... This revival… strikes me as a coarse, strident affair that misses much of its psychological subtlety ... it is half-baked to suggest this is a play about performance... Rupert Everett's saturnine Higgins strikes a note of rasping anger from which he scarcely shifts ... The best performances come from the peripheral characters: there is a superb cameo from Stephanie Cole as Higgins' aristocratic mother ... It's a measure of the production's crudity that it ends with a full-blown staging of Eliza's marriage to Freddy Eynsford-Hill, to which Higgins responds with angry contempt. That's a far cry from the subtlety of Shaw's conclusion, in which Higgins' laughter camouflages the desolation of the artist abandoned by his own creation."
  • Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times (three stars) – "Philip Prowse’s production of Pygmalion… is all effect and little substance... Eliza Doolittle... has put a great deal of work into mastering the necessary accents, both Eliza’s original 'Lisson Grove lingo' and her later too-artificial elocution ... She even adjusts her vocal timbre... Prowse should have put some corresponding effort into ensuring that she is intelligible in the Festival Theatre’s. As Professor Henry Higgins, Rupert Everett ... is a comparatively one-note delivery, and he seldom seems to look anyone else in the eye; it is as if Everett is still mentally trying to get a fix on his performance... the production seems simply to be going through the motions ... and not even Shaw’s motions, as Prowse sees fit to add a final scene of his own which over-simplifies the ending as written."
  • Charles Spencer in the Telegraph (three stars) – "This is... one of the most humane of Shaw’s plays, bubbling with wit and warmth... Philip Prowse directs and designs an ostentatious production… He has also interpolated a final scene, undreamt of by Shaw, in which Eliza marries the amiable but brainless Freddie to Higgins’s palpable dismay. The play is indestructible, and though Rupert Everett seems too modern, too louche and not quite posh enough as Higgins, Honeysuckle Weeks is a delightful Eliza ... There are splendid supporting performances from Peter Eyre who proves the perfect Pickering, plummy, pink-faced, and kindly; from Phil Davis as an unusually fierce and bitter but still entertaining Doolittle; and a delicious star turn from Stephanie Cole as Higgins’s mother who deservedly treats her intelligent but emotionally illiterate son as a child. Nevertheless one would have welcomed a director less perverse than Prowse, who bizarrely burdens this short play with two intervals.
  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) – "One of the many lovely things about Pygmalion is the fact that it’s a largely indestructible play ... This certainly helps when director/designer Philip Prowse’s glossy show begins to stutter after the second of two momentum-sapping intervals... Everett, all too infrequently seen on our stages, proffers an appealing combination of confidence and disdain as a youthful-looking Henry Higgins... It’s a pity, then, that he often seems awkward, relying overmuch on a hangdog expression... Eliza... becomes less convincing the closer to her natural accent she advances. Elsewhere, there’s strong support from Stephanie Cole as a sharp-speaking Mrs Higgins and Peter Eyre as the Professor’s genial foil, Colonel Pickering."
  • Libby Purves in The Times (subscribers only) (four stars) – "Rupert Everett’s Higgins eschews the twinkly irascibility of Rex Harrison in the musical ... He is a real creation; fidgety, choleric, perfectionist, tactless, an equal-opportunity insulter ... It is an astringent antidote to the sugariness of the musical we know ... Phillip Prowse sets the production in Edwardian splendor, a vast Pollocks-toy-theatre proscenium outlined in lights for Covent Garden ... Everett is a hypnotic stage presence, a sullen moulting eagle ... Eliza is a slight problem; the pavement shrillness nicely replaced by sweet comedic primness in her famous tea-party conversation ... Their odd impossible sexual tension is played out in a static, seated colloquy from opposite sides of the area... I came away thinking how many of Shaw’s preoccupations are dated, and yet how strong the human story."
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