A misjudged mish-mash of styles makes this Pygmalion one to avoid at the Old Vic
“What is life but a series of inspired follies?”
For a play so prevalent in the culture, it is strange that George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is relatively rarely produced. I saw an early-career Cush Jumbo excel at the Royal Exchange back in 2010 but can’t recall another recent production anywhere near; of course, My Fair Lady does the rounds now and again so maybe that’s considered sufficient. So maybe director Richard Jones decided that it would be luverly to really shake the play up for his production at the Old Vic.
That he has certainly done, but it is not a production that it is easy to get accustomed to. An idiosyncratic approach sees Jones start the process of dissecting the play through…well, I’m not entirely sure. A mishmash of stylistic interventions and clashing acting styles leaves the tone all over the place and the strange beginning leaves us caught somewhere between the broadest of farces and the clinical air of a science experiment – such is the mélange of the aspects brought to bear here.
The biggest problem lies in Bertie Carvel’s Henry Higgins and Patsy Ferran’s Eliza Doolittle seemingly operating on different planes. Carvel’s take on Higgins is of a downright weird chap, maybe on the spectrum, maybe just a dick, always hard to watch (which may be a deliberate choice but it is so alienating). Ferran fares a little better once the earlier farcical shenanigans calm down and we’re allowed to see her realising that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose when it comes to class and gender in this country.
They can’t locate an emotional throughline for the play though, such is their dissonance and their constant battles against production choices – the mix of period and modern in the design of set and costume is just positively distracting. Supporting performances come closest to saving the day – Sylvestra Le Touzel’s Mrs Higgins, Taheen Modak’s Freddie and John Marquez’s Alfred all emerge much better – but for a play about trying to be clearer, I’ve no idea what this production is trying to say.