Hold on tight, it’s very fast.
Richard Jones’ production makes for a snappy revival of George Berard Shaw’s classic that inspired My Fair Lady The Musical.
In 2023 the notion that a posh accent and some manners can elevate a woman from poverty to royalty seems a little out of touch. However, Shaw's classic still leaves a stamp of feminine power on the Old Vic stage. When My Fair Lady returned to the West End last year, the story felt outdated and as much as this revival tries to add modern sparkle to Higgins and Doolittle it doesn’t give the actors much to play with.
The story follows the well-known story of phonetics expert Henry Higgins, and his experimental protégé Eliza Doolittle - a common cockney flower girl who begs for people’s pennies on the street. Bertie Cavel and Patsy Ferran lead as the duo. Higgins bets his friend Cornel Pickering (played well by Michael Gould) that he can pass Eliza off as a Dutches in six months and the two work together to fix her up.
This version feels less like a revival of a classic and more like a commentary on the original. These actors are arguably some of the best on the theatre scene but the characters feel like caricatures and the story feels more farcical than Shaw intended. Shaw wrote Pygmalion as a study on accent and its effect on class divide. We lose that conversation and it feels like a shame that the characters feel one-dimensional.
The direction feels like we race through scenes and pieces of the pink set may fly off. It’s frantically fast from start to end with hurrying around the stage and plenty of door slamming. It’s enjoyable, Pasty Ferran and Bertie Cavel are delivering as a duo but they rarely get a chance to give their characters much depth. The ensemble are impressively slick as the stage zips from cobbles through to the workings of Higgins. It just feels too fast and we want the cast to have a moment to breathe.
Stewart Laing’s set is wonderful and grand on the big stage. The hues of pink splashed on the walls of Wimpole Street. The geometric print of Higgin’s sounding room looks suitably modern and stylish. The costumes felt confusing. Some very much of the era but the donning of modern coats made it unclear what the goal was. With the pace being at full speed and the stage looking unspecified. We lose the very particular points that Shaw makes with his play. The piece is about the thin line and fine details of behaviour that separate the class divide. Because we lose detail, we lose the impact of Eliza’s transformation.
The comedy isn’t lost at all though. The casting of the production is absolutely wonderful. Bertie Cavel gives us a delightfully awful Higgins. Voice whiny, chin up, excited by the challenge of the ‘guttersnipe’ he’s given himself to work with. Patsy makes for a striking Doolittle, her act one
performance feels hurried along by the direction but by the final scene, she takes the reigns. Eliza becomes a powerful woman making her own choices. The ensemble are impressively slick as the stage zips from cobbles through to the workings of Higgins.
Patsy Ferran and Bertie Cavel are a triumph. It just all feels too fast and we want them to have a moment to breathe. Patsy brings one hell of a performance in Eliza’s moments of despair in Act Two but she doesn’t get enough time in the lead-up for the audience to warm to her.
In the end, Eliza wins the war on class by stealing knowledge. I prefer this version compared to the forced love story that the musical gives us. Shaw's message about class resonates and feels highly relevant in the world today making for a strong choice of revival.
It runs until 28 October. Tickets from £28: here.
Review: Nicole Botha Photo: Manuel Harlan