Last year, a highbrow glossy magazine asked me to nominate one classic drama that might well not get the green light in our current cultural climate. With my tongue hovering close to my cheek, I proposed George Bernard Shaw's acute, glittering comedy Pygmalion (1913). I suggested that in our era of job-swap, wife-swap and life-swap programmes, Shaw's concept would be found wanting. His Professor Higgins conducts an experiment to prove the arbitrariness of social distinctions by training a cockney flower-seller to talk posh. But given our present-day appetite for the inauthentic and the provisional, Shaw would be forced to invent a situation whereby the professor and Eliza Doolittle switched roles for a week, with Eliza trying to fake it as a phonetician and Higgins struggling to come over all gor-blimey flogging blooms.
I knew that this was only a half-truth, a fact that is brought home anew with this much re-cast West End revival of Philip Prowse's sharp, witty production. Reminding us that there are also TV programmes where the contestants have to go into serious Eliza-like training, this staging stars Kara Tointon, the former EastEnders actress who triumphed on Strictly Come Dancing. All the same, I still think that for present tastes, Shaw would have to engineer a clutch of Elizas who would then be eliminated by audience vote.
Tointon is the real deal as his heroine – beautiful, oozing natural stage presence – and she traces, with terrific aplomb, Eliza's journey from truculent determination through heartfelt application and stung hurt to mutinous independence. Her performance in the classic tea-party scene (where low matter and fluting manner are so hilariously at variance) is all the more side-splitting because her Eliza is not stiff like some elocuting mannequin, but deliciously animated as though the new accent is boosting her personality.
Instead of giving us the standard emasculated boffin, Rupert Everett hints at a dark, brooding underbelly to Higgins's self-absorption, and Peter Eyre effortlessly projects the good manners in Colonel Pickering that make Eliza feel a lady far more than the trappings created by the experiment. The strikingly designed production has some mischievous touches – such as lashings of Wagner, including the Liebestod played in the bachelor den. Does Prowse know something we don't?
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