Review by Daz Gale
The Old Vic’s 2023 season so far has seen repeat runs of two recent favourites, Sylvia and Groundhog Day. For its latest, it is bringing George Bernard Shaw’s timeless classic Pygmalion back on its stage in a brand new production. With an exciting cast in tow, could this be able to match the near flawless track record productions at The Old Vic have enjoyed of late, or would it do little to extend that?
Pygmalion first premiered in 1913 and made its way to the West End the following year. In the century since, it has enjoyed countless revivals and adaptations on stage and screen, most famously the musical My Fair Lady, which itself saw a London revival last year. It tells the story of Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle who finds herself the subject of a bet to pass her off as a lady amongst the great and the good of London society.
George Bernard Shaw’s writing remains as exemplary now as it would have done when Pygmalion first premiered 110 years ago (I imagine anyway). The delicate way the story unfolds with a lot of humour almost deceptively covering up the sheer amount of heart that is ever present in the story. What I found mist admirable about this was the changing dynamic in the balance of power between Eliza and Henry and how a character who was initially exploited for laughs grew in confidence to become a powerhouse in herself. There was something about last year’s revival of My Fair Lady that didn’t sit right with me with something about Eliza’s journey feeling rather cold. That isn’t the problem here with a different ending (no spoilers from me) that is completely satisfying to witness.
Stepping into the iconic role of Eliza Doolittle is Patsy Ferran. Having wowed audiences and critics alike with her phenomenal portrayal of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, she once again proves what a force to be reckoned with she is as she delivers a true masterclass performance. Carefully managing to retain the essence of Eliza while putting her own distinct spin on it, she is a marvel to watch in a performance that is a true testament to Patsy’s incredible versatility as an actor. Having already won plaudits for her last stage role, her remarkable turn as Eliza is sure to lead to even more.
Last seen at The Old Vic as Donald Trump in last year’s The 47th, Bertie Carvel returns to the same stage for a very different turn as Professor Henry Higgins. Absolutely awe-inspiring from the moment he first steps on to the stage, he delivers an exceptional performance that squeezes every bit of potential possible out of the character for maximum impact. Through an impeccable knack for comic timing, Bertie amazes as he channels the complex character with his big and bold choices for the character all feeling fitting and making the often questionable character easy to love. A particularly inspired sequence early on involving vowels sees Bertie at his comic best, delivering a performance that may well be one of his best – no small feat for an actor with as many accolades as he already has.
While Pygmalion is very much the Bertie Carvel and Patsy Ferran show, the remainder of the cast are all excellent in their own right. Michael Gould is perfect folly for the pair in a fantastic turn as Colonel Pickering, while Sylvestra Le Touzel delights as Henry’s mother Mrs Higgins. With his unbridled zeal for life, Taheen Modak shines as Freddy, and John Marquez is an absolute standout in a comic and captivating turn as Alfred Doolittle.
Richard Jones’ expert direction breathes new life into the classic with a careful balance of smaller and bigger moments creating a varied mix that is never dull and is consistent only in its impressively high quality throughout. Stewart Laing’s set design doesn’t need the grandeur of Henry Higgins’ house, instead setting the scene with a minimalistic yet fabulously effectively approach, including one ingenious moving part to the set.
A key element I picked up on which was paramount to the success of this production was the sound design from Tony Gayle. A soundtrack of background noise takes the bold choice in the show’s second act to cut out completely, leading to prolonged moments where the only sound on the stage is that of the actors speaking. This leads to intense and often painful silents as they take their pauses but this only amplifies the impact of the moment, creating a beautifully atmospheric setting.
If 2023 is proving to be a vintage year for The Old Vic, Pygmalion does nothing to detract from it, once again showing what this theatre does best. To take a classic such as this and bring something new to it, making it feel almost contemporary despite its period setting is a testament to the meticulous planning and execution that goes into any Old Vic production. With the writing and direction equally impressive, this would be an impressive show in itself… if it wasn’t for the performances of Patsy Ferran and Bertie Carvel. These two powerhouse performances take this production of Pygmalion and turn it into something truly unmissable. This mesmerising production is full of complete joy and is a complete triumph.
Pygmalion plays at The Old Vic until 28th October. Tickets from oldvictheatre.com
Photos by Manuel Harlan