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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
PYGMALION
at the Garrick

THE QUEEN'S ENGLISH
By JOHN NATHAN

  Kara Tointon/ Ph: Johan Persson

Perhaps it is a mark of Rupert Everett’s qualities that being miscast as Henry Higgins proves to be far from fatal for Philip Prowse’s production. Though altogether rather too tall, dark and handsome for Bernard Shaw’s phonics-obsessed academic, Everett has in spades the required callousness.
 
What he lacks is the required sexual naivety. There is, it is true, evidence that Higgins is attractive to women. His mother – played by a haughty though coasting Diana Rigg – says that no man can turn a girl’s head better than her son. But with Everett it is hard to believe that Higgins is so utterly unaware of his unintentional pulling power. 
 
For this West End run of Prowse’s Chichester production, Kara Tointon – star of the television soap EastEnders and winner of the reality TV show Strictly Come Dancing – steps into the flower seller’s no-doubt leaky shoes. Actually it's threadbare socks for most of the first act. Tointon brings a hard-as-nails toughness to the role, but the transition from gutter cockney to Queen’s English has to be utterly convincing, and it’s not. 
 
By coincidence, when Martine McCutcheon, another actress who made her name in EastEnders, took on the role of Eliza in National Theatre production of My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe's musical version of the play, she too was more convincing as a cockney than a countess. And despite the best efforts of a voice coach who reportedly put Tointon through the same kind of speech lessons that Eliza suffers at the hands of Higgins, she comes out sounding less like a duchess and more like Margaret Thatcher. 
 
Now, this could make perfect sense. Thatcher was, after all, the ultimate social climber – a grocer’s daughter who not only ended up as prime minister, but with the poise of royalty. But hers was a learned kind of posh, and Higgins’ cultured ear would have had no problem in identifying her speech as belonging to a lower-middle-class daughter of middle England. 
 
Which is of course Shaw’s point – that it is “impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him,” which is as true today as it was in 1912 when Shaw wrote the play. 
 
But there is no evidence here that the Thatcher effect was planned. Prowse’s production is rather like his design – solid but uninspired. The set is comprised of thick folding bookcases that fold efficiently into Mrs Higgins's drawing room when required, but the cast is inelegantly pushed on and off stage on wobbly platforms. 
 
Yet Shaw prevails. His profound arguments are expressed with such wit, whole sentences resonate long after they are spoken. Michael Feast as Eliza’s father Doolittle nails the role with just the right amount of charisma and nastiness. And to give Prowse his due, Doolittle’s first scene in which middle-class attitudes are stripped to their hypocritical core, is perfectly pitched and superbly timed. Meanwhile, Peter Eyre – plummy in tone, sonorous of voice – is impeccably cast as Higgins’s better-behaved colleague Colonel Pickering.
 
So the production still offers many pleasures. Though perhaps, on second thought, it is not so much a mark of Everett’s qualities that make this an evening to recommend, but Shaw's. 
 


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