Review – Pygmalion, The Old Vic

Thursday 15 May 2008

“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.

Spectacle-wise, there was on-stage rain and a taxi cab. Cast-wise, there was WEW-fave actress and artist Una Stubbs as Mrs Pearce (left).

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?

8 Responses to “Review – Pygmalion, The Old Vic”

  1. Simon Treves Says:

    Hampsters? Isn’t their pee silent?

  2. jmc Says:

    I am glad that you liked this – I did when I saw it in Bath last “summer” (I put that in inverted commas, as it rained all the time I was there). Intriguingly, Tim Piggot-Smith at the after-show discussion suggested that the play could be taken today as a comment on the NuLabour government’s stated desire to get vast swathes of the population into Higher Education. I can certainly identify with Eliza’s father’s ambivalence about “middle class respectability”…


  3. “When did you last see the words ‘Shaw’ and ‘concise’ in the same sentence?” – That would be last July, when I cracked the same gag in my review of the production’s Bath première at http://search.ft.com/ftArticle?queryText=pygmalion&y=0&aje=true&x=0&id=070716007342&ct=0.

    Honestly, I don’t know where to put myself…


  4. Damn and blast you Shuttleworth.


  5. Well, after the mammarial mix-up I’d been feeling a right tit. This perks things up a bit.


  6. […] always nice to return to The Old Vic, and I have also noticed now that the good guys from the West End Whingers have also mentioned it, that the seats are well-oiled, as I hear no squeak when I try to reposition myself. Good work indeed Mr. […]


  7. My g/f & I saw Pygmalion on Saturday night: after the endless bowing Tim P-S shushed the audience with hand gestures & began to deliver a thankyou speech to the audience & Kevin (who was seated about 5 rows in front of us), but got overcome with the emotion of it all and couldn’t finish. An interesting combination of emotion, audience bewilderment, and what very much appeared to be the sort of luvvie behaviour normally best reserved for cast parties.
    Show was great though.


  8. […] The last time this came round was two years at the Old Vic. It had come from Bath, was directed by Peter Hall and featured  Michelle Dockery as Eliza Dolittle and Una Stubbs as the house-keeper Mrs Pearce. It all proved to be rather agreeable. […]


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