“There must be something radically wrong about the play if it pleases everybody, but at the moment I cannot find what it is.”
Shaw’s comment on his own Pygmalion is one of the few kinds of challenge to which the West End Whingers feel they can confidently rise so they were eagerly anticipating their evening at Peter Hall‘s revival at the Old Vic and – to save precious drinking time later – had already scrawled “too long!!!!” and “squeaking seats” in their notebooks.
But they were forced to cross out these judgements – somewhat petulantly, it must be said – thanks to a very cunning pincer attack by Shaw and Spacey.
Shaw because (according to the programme) this is “Shaw’s original concise text of Pygmalion, first published in 1916, excluding the extra scene he wrote for the film made in 1938″ (When did you last see the words “Shaw” and “concise” in the same sentence?).
And Spacey because – unless we are very much mistaken (insert your own dry observation here) – the seats in the Old Vic have finally been oiled. A YouGov survey of our party specially commissioned by the Whingers found that not one of them could remember any distracting furniture noises at all.
So once again we acknowledge that George Bernard Shaw was indeed a clever and entertaining chap. Indeed, the Whingers are fast becoming his biggest fans following the National’s recent beguiling productions of Saint Joan and Major Barbara.
So what’s it all about? Well, take out the songs from Shaw’s classic musical My Fair Lady and what do you get? You get a pretty nifty play called Pygmalion.
So nifty in fact the Whingers could still have begged for more as it actually runs 10 minutes shorter than its advertised running time of 2 hours 30 minutes. Nicholas Hytner take note.
Indeed, Mr Kevin Spacey is – in the Whingers’ humble opinion – stealing the National’s crown. This is the fourth Old Vic production in a row that they’ve not merely endured (which would be a laurel worthy of resting on in itself), but actually enjoyed.
And this despite the blistering heat of Tuesday night. Yes, the Whingers were far away from the cold night air as they sweated it out in the Old Vic – warm face, warm ‘ands, warm feet; even Phil’s kazongas were beginning to simmer quite unattractively in the third row of the stalls.
So we shall get our carping in here: perhaps Mr Spacey could build some kind of giant hampster wheel at the back of the stalls, with a fan attached, and exercise his dog in it. Something has to be done. While the Whingers warmly (or should that be roastingly?) recommend this production you should avoid it at all costs in a heatwave: wait until the the temperatures fall.
Apart from that, with a little bit of bloomin luck and some air-con, the Vic could have another hit on its hands.
There was so much for the trivial theatregoer to enjoy here. How could you not love a play in which one of the characters is identified in the text as “Sarcastic Bystander”?
And Andrew was absolutely thrilled that Shaw had picked on Phil’s North London address to epitomise the bottom rung of the social scale:
“Men begin in Kentish Town with £80 a year, and end in Park Lane with a hundred thousand. They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths.“
Had it all stopped there, it would have been just fine. But there was more.
Michelle Dockery as Eliza Doolittle (right) is smashing, superb, sagacious: vocally amusing before her transformation and dashing, elegant and commanding after it. This woman will go far, if she hasn’t already done so.
Tim Pigott-Smith paints a very skilful sketch of Professor Higgins in conveying his utter ignorance of manners and protocol (Andrew didn’t understand what the fuss was about, of course).
Freddy (Matt Barber) even almost manages to steal his meagre scene from Dockery and Tony Haygarth as Eliza’s father (and Shaw’s mouthpiece), Alfred, turns in such a deliciously wry performance that for a moment the Whingers forgot they were merely ignoramuses in the lecture theatre of Shaw’s University of Hectoring.
And then, of course, there is Barbara Jefford OBE.
Hysterically funny in parts, Pygmalion is also very strange. What Edwardian audiences read into the relationship between Higgins, Pickering (both confirmed bachelors) and Eliza is anyone’s guess. If we lost you after we stopped talking about My Fair Lady, think about the utter weirdness of Paint Your Wagon (still weird 50 years’ later) and you may begin to understand.
All quite extraordinary. Plus, this fresh-from-Bath production has a rather delightful provincial feel which took both of the Whingers back to their youths. When was the last time you saw a production in which between scenes the curtain came down and the house lights up (slightly)?
Although it was as reassuringly nostalgic as fishcakes and Nesquick (and, in Phil’s case, powdered egg), a stage revolve could have shaved (geddit?) another 10 minutes off the running time. Wouldn’t it be luverly?