Pygmalion at the Old Vic
This adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 Pygmalion, directed by Richard Jones, is manic, fast-paced and gaspingly funny. Set sometime in the early 20th century, when cockney accents and class snobbery were abundant, a crowd of genteel people hide from the rain whilst a poor cockney girl named Eliza Doolittle (Patsy Ferran) tries to sell flowers. Henry Higgins (Bertie Carvel), an eloquent and overbearing man with hands in his pockets and a slight slump in his shoulders, starts writing down everything Eliza says, which startles her and throws her into a panic, worrying she’s going to be arrested.
It turns out Higgins is an expert in phonetics and has a knack for knowing where anyone was born just from hearing their accent. Colonel Pickering (Michael Gould), another phonetics enthusiast, has come from India to meet Higgins, and during their rainy meet cute, Higgins boasts that within a few months, he could train Eliza to speak like a duchess. Eliza hears this and takes Higgins up on his offer, which involves subjecting herself to late nights, endless repetition and Higgins’s eccentric and often frenzied behaviour.
Set amongst pink vent-style walls with a moving columned platform, Richard Jones’s set design is flamboyant and eye-catching, and the costumes feel authentic and appropriate. Whiteboards with different sounds and phrases on them are a nice addition and help keep track of Eliza’s progress. Frenzied piano music signals scene changes, which further adds to the slightly deranged feeling of this play.
Carvel gives an over-the-top, nasally, hysterical and breathless performance as the tyrannical Higgins. This is a callous, conceited and selfish character, and yet, you can’t help but like him – although you ultimately end up rooting for Eliza. Ferran starts as a bit of a caricature as she runs about the stage, flying into a panic at any moment and screaming “GAAAAAA” at the top of her lungs, but as the show goes, on her character’s more mature and vulnerable side comes out, and Ferran manages to show us a rich, intelligent young woman who ends up outsmarting those who think they’re above her.
Pygmalion is very of its time, and it’s surprising that many of the jokes, particularly those calling Eliza a slut, still land. The frantic feeling of the show is overwhelming at times, but it also does well to match Higgin’s energy and see the performance from Eliza’s point of view. It moves in a flash and you ultimately leave feeling satisfied.
Images: Manuel Harlan
Pygmalion is at the Old Vic from 6th September until 28th October 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Pygmalion here: