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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
PYGMALION
at The Old Vic

ALL I WANT IS A...
By MATT WOLF

  Tim Pigott-Smith and Michelle Dockery

It's ladies' night over at the Old Vic's new production of Pygmalion, the Bernard Shaw play here served up in a pleasant if not especially demanding staging that one might refer to not unsympathetically as Shaw Lite. Those looking for something more fiery, as befits this least docile and complacent of playwrights, should keep all eyes directed toward the fairer sex, to use a phrase that would surely ignite the ire of Michelle Dockery's Eliza Doolittle - a Cockney flower girl who even at her most swellegant never loses an instinct and self-awareness worthy of one of Caryl Churchill's top girls, not just Shaw's phonetically improved swan. Dockery appeared earlier this year for her Pygmalion director, Peter Hall, in an exemplary Uncle Vanya, playing a Yelena who substituted a quite bruising acumen for the indolence often encountered in that role. Her Eliza, in turn, confirms Dockery as a genuine star-in-the-making, a young actress whose own fiercely apparent know how on this evidence is inseparable from the smart women from whatever walk of life that she has so far got to play.

It's a relief, among other things, not to find Eliza screeching her way through the opening passages of this play, as if to make our 21st century ears wilt under the weight of the very vowels that send Henry Higgins and his sidekick, Col. Pickering, into spasms of experimental glee. Even at her most authentically streetwise, Dockery's is an Eliza played (and articulated) for real, not for the crude brushstrokes that can often attend this part. The actress's porcelain features are to the manner born for a social experiment whereby two exceedingly socially arrested men proceed to turn someone whom Higgins calls a bilious pigeon into an exceptional beauty whose sudden cultivation renders this Eliza intriguingly robotic. Possessed of the necessary carriage of her newly acquired society but not the emotional comfort that by rights should accompany it, she enquires, poignantly, What is to become of me? Or, as Eliza subsequently puts it, her intelligence always at the ready, I sold flowers I'm not fit to sell myself. Here's a true Shavian heroine not prepared to prostitute her soul.

In this context, it comes as absolutely no surprise that Eliza finds a soulmate of sorts in the formidable Mrs. Higgins, whom the great Barbara Jefford plays with a delicious mixture of affection and disdain, depending on just who is at the receiving end of her own withering intuition. The two women realize from opposite ends of the class spectrum that the male species hardly deserves the mores that Eliza has worked so hard to acquire and that have beenMrs. Higgins's from birth. I have created this thing, says Higgins at his most patronizing, though Tim Pigott-Smith to be truthful plays the part less like Dr. Frankenstein in awe of a newly created monster and more like a slouchy schoolboy who likes to make funny gestures with his cheeks. One could argue, in fact, that there's more suppressed fury to Higgins than the star here lets on remarking, we're all savages, more or less, Higgins does after all sound as if he'd signed on to the brutish thesis currently being proffered across town by Ralph Fiennes's character in God of Carnage.

The result somewhat softens the potential sting of this most human of Shaw's plays, diluting up to a point a show that doesn't electrify in a way to match the National's recent attentions to Shaw on both Saint Joan and Major Barbara. The clucking, smitten Freddy, for instance, must surely be more interesting than is here indicated by newcomer Matt Barber, notwithstanding the actor's notable resemblance to Prince William. (Freddy's fretf

 


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