Review – Pygmalion, Chichester Festival Theatre

Monday 19 July 2010

In the words of Fred Ebb, “The world goes round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round”.

As Eagle-eyed readers will know, over the last four years the Whingers have seen every play and musical ever written and are having to begin all over again. We digested our second Assassins only the other day.

And yesterday, what should appear on the great theatrical merry-go-round,with all the dignity it is possible to muster on a giant chicken rising and falling to the self-parodying tones of a steam organ, but George Bernard Shaw‘s Pygmalion.

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.

This time it’s the turn of Honeysuckle Weeks (apparently very well known from off the telly in something called Foyle’s War) and top raffle ticket drawer Susie Blake plus Rupert Everett as Henry Higgins, Peter Eyre as Pickering, Phil Davis as Eliza’s father and Stephanie Cole as Higgins’ mother.

Quite a cast – most of them above the title – but you have to travel all the way to the Chichester Festival Theatre to see it.

Well, they say travel broadens the mind and perhaps predictably the Whingers have hitherto shown a reluctance to take that risk. This was their first outing to this strange Sussex cultural outpost and despite being fortunate with the weather and having a 90 minute train journey each way to get their teeth into the Times giant Saturday cryptic crossword, our first impressions are that the Chichesterians are welcome to their theatre.

The polygonal Festival Theatre is built in the “brutalist waffle” style. Its saving grace is that it is situated on the edge of a park but your route to the theatre takes you through a giant car park instead if you arrive on foot. And what a peculiar shape it is inside too, the audience arranged through 180 degrees, mostly on a single rake and, of course, nobody gets a good seat. Well, the Sunday Telegraph’s Tim Walker* had a good seat but very few other people seemed to. The stage seems shallow, yet very wide. And the acoustics are atrocious, at least from row M which is only about half way back (from which, incidentally, even with your glasses on, you also can not tell that Eliza’s step-mother is a man in drag).

Anyway, Pygmalion. Well, not for the first time, the principal take-home-feeling for the Whingers was one of bemusement and a sense that the directorial flourishes and gone way over our heads.

For a start, we puzzled for much of the time over the main Covent Garden set (set and direction are both by Philip Prowse) which was a kind of chinoiserie cum musical hall sort of affair presumably painted by the love child of Jocasta Innes and Jackson Pollock. Then the end of Act 1 closed to the strains of Land Of Hope And Glory while small paper union flags fluttered down from the flies. We are relying upon the brain-power of the Billingtons and the Shuttleworths of this world to unlock this for us come the opening tonight (Monday 19 July) because frankly we are even more than usually clueless.

For the rest: well, we couldn’t hear most of Honeysuckle Weeks’ dialogue in the early scenes when she’s doing her shrill cockney voice which rather undermined the line about “There’s a gentleman over here taking down everything you’ve been saying”. It didn’t help that much of it was delivered with her back to us, and couldn’t even see her when she sat down. Even stranger that in the interview in the programme Weeks says: “But it’s a balancing act: the audience needs to be able to hear the words”.

She did, however, shine in the scene in which she first passes herself off as a lady to Mrs Higgins and the Eynsford Hills, even giving us a very amusing attempt to imitate the walk as well as the talk of the aristocracy. And as entertaining as this (barely 20 minute) scene is, it suffers from another odd directorial decision, sandwiched, as it, is between two 15 minute intervals.

Rupert Everett – annoyingly (especially for Phil) looking years younger than 51, even with a beard – is fine, with the requisite disdain, hauteur and selfishness necessary, as though to the manor born, but swallows a lot of his words. We think we would have preferred for Rupert to be playing the Big Star rather more.

The person who comes out best from it all is undoubtedly Stephanie Cole whose command of the comedy is complete, a masterclass in wringing every last laugh out of the Shavian wit. The Chichester crowd seemed to wallow in it all, enthusiastically clapping performers’ exits throughout. Even the “they done her in” line drew applause. The only thing this elderly audience were unlikely to offer was moving their bloomin’ arses for a standing ovation.

The final confrontation between Eliza and Higgins falls flat as it’s rather oddly played out with the characters sitting mainly either side of the stage, lobbing their lines across the vast divide (a metaphor for their relationship that was lost on us? ). The Whingers will be tearing up their applications for next year’s Wimbledon Tennis Championships’ seating lottery. We feel we’ve got the gist.

Rupert Everett and Honeysuckle Weeks

Sadly it didn’t seem a patch on the Peter Hall version, but to be sure we would have to see it again in a theatre more forgiving to both performers and audience and preferably lurking behind a proper proscenium arch rather than the overwrought on-stage concoction created here. Perhaps we might be able hear and see what was going on.

Footnotes

Walker (aka “Mandrake”) took tea afterwards with a somewhat grumpy looking Everett and a few other people. Presumably they were talking about this:

Mandrake hears that Katie Price, 32, had been in negotiations to play Eliza Doolittle to Rupert Everett’s Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, until the break up of her marriage to Peter Andre stymied the idea.

“Katie regarded it as a bold new departure for her and was very keen,” whispers my man backstage at the Chichester Festival Theatre, where the play opens tonight.

“Rupert and Katie have been friends since they did a magazine photo-shoot together, and they had convinced Philip Prowse, the director, that the chemistry would be perfect.”

The casting would certainly have been a publicist’s dream, with the inevitable parallels being drawn between the way Eliza and Price – once known as the glamour model Jordan – were trying to transform their lives.

In the event, the break-up of Price’s marriage to Andre and other pressures on her when the play was about to go into rehearsals meant that she had, sadly, to abandon the idea.

“She still has an ambition to establish herself as an actress,” I am told. “If the right part were to come along, she would jump at the chance.”

Rating










Philip Prowse,

3 Responses to “Review – Pygmalion, Chichester Festival Theatre”

  1. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    You want to know what that look is all about? Simple: it’s what Philip Prowse does. Visually opulent, always including a few acres of scarlet velvet. It’s the same kind of attitude that led him to write his own final scene since he seemed to think Shaw’s wasn’t good enough. He is wrong.

  2. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Prowse has a thing about pseudo-period staging: back in the ’90s when he was at the Citizens’, he took a Don Carlos to the Edinburgh International Festival with *four* full intervals. I remember one of my colleagues using the opportunity to conduct a tour of the theatre bar’s collection of single malts. He shall remain nameless. Not to say legless.


  3. Perhaps Peter Hall could direct Katie Price in another revival of “Pygmalion”, with someone even trashier than Rupert Everett to play Higgins: Dale Winton, perhaps? Their skin tones would match.


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