Pygmalion, Old Vic, London
The Good Soul of Szechuan, Young Vic, London
The Birthday Party, Lyric, Hammersmith, London

Shaw's classic revels in timeless themes and a talented cast; by contrast a Brecht revival seems didactic and dull

Tim Pigott-Smith's Professor Henry Higgins is holding forth while munching on a sweet. He's sprawled in an armchair and blithely wiping his nose on his tie, like a schoolboy, in Sir Peter Hall's enjoyable production of Pygmalion (transferring from the Bath Theatre Royal). The sharp point of Shaw's social comedy is precisely this: while Eliza Doolittle (Michelle Dockery) lacks breeding and drops all her aitches, the "gentleman" phoneticist who's determined to pass her off as a pukka duchess displays far from impeccable manners himself.

Pigott-Smith captures the shocking rudeness of which the intelligentsia can be guilty. He's the voice of outrageous snobbishness as he scorns the guttersnipe. Using Eliza as his experiment, never thinking of the consequences, he is also the stereotypical scientist – callous and ethically dubious.

However, what this production most clearly brings out is Higgins the confirmed but confused bachelor. Confessing that he really wants a woman like his no-nonsense mater (Barbara Jefford), there's a touch of oral fixation about his habitual sweet-sucking. Moreover, in the final scene, he's hopelessly in denial about finding Eliza attractive, reaching out to touch her but repeatedly backing off. A man in the audience on the night I attended was so frustrated that he shouted out, "Kiss her!", to no avail. Ungraciously treated as a second-class citizen or mere commodity, Eliza walks out like an Ibsen heroine, leaving the professor on the brink of tears. He has learned his lesson too late.

Pigott-Smith perhaps fractionally overplays the physical mannerisms and there could be more teasing sexual chemistry, but Sir Peter's whole cast is commendably strong. Dockery's Eliza, in cockney mode, is refreshingly uncaricatured. She has a touching silent mournfulness too, when she's exquisitely dressed in cream silk gowns but is still being treated like a doormat. Una Stubbs is on good form as the housekeeper, Mrs Pearce, urgently concerned for the girl and secretly fond of Higgins herself. Meanwhile, Tony Haygarth is the most charming Alfred Doolittle I've seen: a merrily shameless, motor-mouthed scrounger with a twinkle in his eye.

It's the Gods who nudge the lowly prostitute, Shen Te, up the social ladder in Bertolt Brecht's The Good Soul of Szechuan. A delegation has been sent from heaven to search for a decent citizen. This is like hunting for a needle in a haystack. Jane Horrocks's Shen Te is the only person kind enough to offer the deities shelter for the night.

Rewarded with sufficient cash to buy a tobacco shop, she then tries to run her business and be charitable to the poor – swiftly becoming nicknamed the Angel of the Slums. Nevertheless in Brecht's cynical parable – penned in the early 1940s, before the Chinese communists gained control and, of course, not foreseeing this week's tragic earthquake – Szechuan is envisaged as a realm of charmless scavengers, scamming at the bottom of the capitalist pile.

Shen Te is ripped off by squatters and a money-grabbing sweetheart. So just to survive, she is compelled to adopt a hard-nosed alter ego, slipping into a pin-stripe suit and trilby and pretending to be her tough male cousin, Shui Ta. Think caring sharing liberal-turns-mafia geezer. She ends up dealing heroin in David Harrower's new but not stringently updated translation. Richard Jones's staging gets off to an enticing start. The Young Vic's auditorium had been transformed into an epic warehouse market: high plywood walls, glass booths and bright advertising banners. Visually, this has a stark stylish beauty with dream-like touches: when the bureaucratic Gods start ringing on doorbells, scowling faces pop out of tall steel lockers, and heroin addicts drift around with paper bags on their heads branded with smiley faces.

This styling does not, however, generate a sense of genuine squalor, nor can it conceal that Brecht's folktale becomes dull, didactic yet not illuminating. With paper-thin characters, the cast rarely get a chance to be engaging either, though Adam Gillen stands out playing the penniless water-seller as a frantic simpleton. Jane Horrocks is disappointing in the title role: arrestingly gaunt but tiresomely baby-voiced as Shen Te. Turning into Shui Ta, she's not thrillingly different. As for the musical numbers, David Sawer's arrangements are edgily atonal but wan.

Finally, David Farr's new Lyric Hammersmith production of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party marks this modern classic's 50th anniversary. The London premiere, at this address, was notoriously panned, except by one critic, Harold Hobson, who recognised the playwright's extraordinary talent to disturb.

That power has not diminished. What's riveting about this seedy boarding-house drama is how it begins as a comedy of banality – with ludicrously dreary circling conversations about cornflakes – before you're sucked into a weird nightmare where unexplained interrogators come to torment the scraggy lodger, Stanley, who is teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown.

It must be said that Nicholas Woodeson sometimes lets the predatory menace slacken as Goldberg, and Justin Salinger, playing Stanley, hams up a few dramatic moments, darting like a ferret or freezing on the spot – almost physical-theatre style. However, Farr brings out how this darkening comedy looks back to Pinter's early comic sketches and forward to his more directly political plays. Sheila Hancock is also outstanding as the landlady, Meg, making her slightly backward, so she's a seedy old baggage in curlers but with the sweet naivety of a child.

'Pygmalion' (0870-060 6628) to 2 August; 'The Good Soul of Szechuan' (020-7922 2922) to 21 June; 'The Birthday Party' (0870-050 0511) to 24 May

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions