I had the great pleasure of another trip to my local theatre this week, where Pygmalion has just started a three week run.
I’ve watched some wonderful plays at Nuffield Southampton Theatres recently, which have kept me in the good books of both my children and my husband respectively. But I think this adaption by Sam Pritchard of Bernard Shaw’s 1913 masterpiece is the best thing I’ve seen in months.
To say that it’s basically My Fair Lady would be an injustice, and yet it was the original stage play of Pygmalion that inspired the film. In this modern reinvention, phonetics professor Henry Higgins plucks gobby northerner Eliza Doolittle from the streets of London, and uses a bit of reverse psychology sway to bring her into his digital studio. There, he wagers that within six months, he can pass her off as a Duchess at a Buckingham Palace soiree.
The play opens with the cast on stage, lipsyncing to lines of dialogue read by varying dialects while subtitles run across a screen. Immediately, interest is piqued and attention is assured. Being an uncultured sort, I did wonder if my ears and eyes could stand two hours of this, before the performance took flight on another trajectory and the actors became matched with their ‘real’ voices.
I’m used to seeing minimalist set designs at the Nuffield, and it was refreshing to see that this one was slightly more bells and whistles. Having said that, it managed to be both modern and clinical, with the main set piece being the sound studio where Higgins pummels Eliza’s speech delivery as if she’s some sort of lab rat. Higgins is, probably deliberately, heartily unlikeable. Yet, he carries a vulnerability and sense of abandonment that Alex Beckett captures perfectly. Natalie Gavin, as Eliza, is strong and rowdy and delicate and troubled all at once.
If the first half is a party for the senses, then the second half is a jolt into the world of the modern love story. The two leads spark off each other beautifully, and capture the rawness of what it is to be desperately proud and stubborn, yet ultimately alone. It’s in this second half that elaborate sets fade into the background, and the dizzying array of noise from the first half fades so that the audience can hear a pin drop. Or, regrettably, the barely concealed coughing fit of a certain blogger in row M.
The mixed media element gave the play a refreshing twist, whereby segments of the story appear on the stage screen as pre-recorded film. One such ‘nice bit’ came early doors, as Eliza lipsyncs along to “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady. Loverly it was.
Pygmalion runs until 13th May and tickets start from a tenner, which is an absolute steal. I promise, it’s far more than simply phonetics.
-SJW April 2017