FringeReview UK 2023
What this production gives, in its hovering over periods, is a technocratic gloss on Shaw’s optimism and female agency. That optimism and agency though is why this play continually fascinates. Not because of the mechanics of accent, or even social mobility, but sheer release of human potential. In Patsy Ferran’s Eliza that transformation’s palpable.
Directed by Richard Jones, Designer & Costume Stewart Laing, Lighting Adam Silverman, Sound Tony Gayle, Original Music and Sound Score Will Stuart, Movement Sarah Fahie, Casting Rebecca Ronane CDG, Dialect William Conacher, Voice Charlie Hughes De’Aeth, Bayliss Assistant Director Jack Bradfield, Costumer Supervisor Sarah Bowern, Wigs Hair and Make-up Keisha-Paris Banya, Props Supervisor Marcus Hall Props
CSM David Curl, DSM Rebecca Maltby, ASM Lily Wanqaio
Till October 28th
Satirical comedy at the speed of farce might have its drawbacks, but something vital and explosive bursts through too, in Shaw’s 1912 Pygmalion revived at the Old Vic by Richard Jones.
It’s not just the caught-bird flapping of Patsy Ferran’s magnificent Eliza Doolittle and the windmilling pelican of Henry Higgins (Bertie Carvel), but a world snagged on tech-speed. It’s the last gasp of Progress, up against a couple of wars.
Ferran’s ideal casting as Eliza, and Carvel’s Higgins too ought to be definitive. Jones though has set the play up to hurtle past in a frantic two-hours-ten, ensuring a measure of caricature and lightning-sketch does service, sometimes, for depth.
Ferran’s plangent notes have to be caught as she telegraphs them, for instance, in a moment after what should have been a triumphant night, squatting desolate in front of a fire. But for much of the time, farce’s sheer physicality provides flailing limbs with a semaphore, a careening second language beyond the Shavian satire on the uses of pronunciation, language and culture.
After the rain-flapping prelude (featuring Inonian pillars, here Covent Garden’s St Paul’s), with storm-lighting by Adam Silverman, we’re hurtled into more of Stewart Laing’s pinkish pegboard set, with homages to Rennie Mackintosh. Professor Higgins’ laboratory, or machine for living and talking like a machine. 1970s-style smart illustrations on blackboard-style trestles wheel on and off. Mrs Pearce (Penny Layden, like all the women, an adult) sweeps on and off in a white lab coat.
We’re somewhere between 1912’s Futurism and Will Stuart’s motoric piano themes hurtling at intervals based on 1920s Les Six member Arthur Honegger (he wrote the score for the 1938 film).
That goes for Laing’s costumes too. Whereas Higgins and the rest stay vaguely around 1912 (Higgins stays brown throughout), Ferran starts in a 1970s lime/blue floral (Higgins’ “squashed cabbage leaf”), occluded by a dank anorak; moves (cheeky!) into Audrey Hepburn’s Tiffany classic silvery-white frock mode in the Ambassador scene; and finally – satisfyingly – into 1912’s vision for trousered Rational Dress in beige and brown: which could be from any period, outclassing Higgins’ brown, and oh so much smarter. Ferran’s expressed a love for Hepburn’s Eliza; there’s winks to past Elizas here.
It’s at St Paul’s that Higgins meets not only Eliza but his Watson, the emotionally more intelligent Urdu expert Colonel Pickering (Michael Gould) and pronounces on an “age of upstarts” where those transplanted from Kentish Town to Park Lane “give themselves away every time they open their mouths”.
Last here for The 47th as Trump, it’s remarkable how even Carvel’s physicality changes. With his elbows an angular commentary on his character, this lean and almost Cleese-like Carvel conveys a Higgins mother-dependent. One whose asexual character isn’t allowed much agency here. Carvel makes of him more a neurodiverse bully who simply can’t empathise, or modify his behaviour or opinions.
That slices against what Shaw gives him, when he proclaims on the “gulf that separates class from class, soul from soul”. Shaw’s brilliance is to express his own belief in social mobility, indeed the absurdity of class, through an egomaniac. His belief after all was “all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” There’s another Henry Higgins there, just we wait till next time.
But this is partly down to Shaw too. His Higgins is a bundle of contradictions. And his Pickering sashays from empath to someone who celebrates ‘their’ triumph of Eliza’s coming-out without thinking of her. That’s inconsistent and lazy of Shaw, and Gould makes the best of it by treating a flower-girl like a duchess whilst Higgins does the opposite and proud of it.
But Ferran is both equally watchable as she flings about early on, and later as she stills herself; then breaks out of that statuesque straitjacket to find her own voice. The way Ferran’s Eliza visibly moves into herself to make her final speech makes you want to cheer (in fact people do).
Ferran’s both exquisitely funny as well as vulnerable in the first scenes, then both in a dialled-down way with the famous tea party at Mrs Higgins (Sylvestre Le Touzel), pronouncing on her aunt: “she was done in” with all the gin-toting tales which has Clara Eynsford-Hill (Lizzy Connolly, as impressionable as her daffy brother) praise the “new small talk” her mother Mrs Eynsford-Hill (Grace Cookey-Gam, a picture of elegant retreat) swears she’ll never quite get the hang of.
Shaw’s skill at reintroducing characters in part compensates for his losing their psychology when it suits him. Le Touzel, all adamantine sanity, reining-in her son, ends an ally of Eliza’s. Indeed it’s a hallmark of this production that bar Pickering on occasion the childish men are more caricatured than the women. Even previous Higgins pupil Arisitid Kaparthy (Kieran Smith) who might rumble Eliza, is lightly dealt with.
Though there’s appeal, even mild pity for Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Taheen Modak) with his ever-hopeful bunch of flowers for Eliza. However pratfalling with doors slammed in his face (a lot of that altogether), he’s constant and believably warm.
The exception is Alfred Doolittle (John Marquez, sparkling with truculence) with his fantastical attack on “middle-class morality”, his clarion-call as one of the “undeserving poor” and dismay when he’s entrapped with a legacy of £3,000 a year for being an original.
There’s enough two-dimensional vividness for ensemble-players Steven Dykes, Liz Jadav, Caroline Maloney, Rohan Rakhit to appear in all sorts of dress, including in Maloney’s case as another flower-girl.
What this production gives, in its hovering over periods, is a technocratic gloss on Shaw’s optimism and female agency. That optimism and agency though is why this play continually fascinates. Not because of the mechanics of accent, or even social mobility, but sheer release of human potential. In Ferran’s Eliza that transformation’s palpable. A must-see.