Theatre: Pygmalion Albery Theatre, London Kiss Me Kate Regent's Park, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"I've grown accustomed to her face," sings Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, the musical version of Pygmalion. With three changes of director and Emily Lloyd's replacement, as Eliza, by a newcomer straight from drama school, simply recognising each other must be counted an achievement for the cast of this latest staging of the original Shaw play. Now steered into the West End by farceur Ray Cooney, the show is not as bad as you might expect and not as good as you have a right to expect. It's the kind of production for which the word "serviceable" might have been invented.

Playing a flower girl elevated from gutter to high society via phonetic engineering, does the unknown Carli Norris make an equivalent leap from obscurity to stardom? Well, it's not so much a case of "By George, she's got it!" as "By George, she may well have it!" She certainly has terrific natural presence and poise and there's an impish quality about her prettiness that is unmistakably appealing. But I don't think she has been well served either by the direction or the other leading players.

Wearing a curly quiff that announces "wig" with a distinctness that would please any phonetician, Roy Marsden's Higgins badly overdoes the overgrown- schoolboy-with-mother-complex aspect of the professor. He's so agressively sexless with his spoilt-infant body language and boffinish gurgles that there's nothing for Ms Norris to connect with. What is attractive about this man's questing vitality gets mislaid.

Occasionally, in Ms Norris's performance, less would be more. In the famous tea-party scene where Eliza launches into an immaculately enunciated account of how her gin-soaked aunt was "done in", the actress's manner has the hilarious robot stiffness of some battery-operated machine.

Christopher Woods's depressing set of pillars and metal walkways has, with appropriate projections, to pass for Covent Garden, Higgins's study and a London embassy where a feebly staged dance is executed. There are fine supporting performances from a splendidly pursed and disapproving Marcia Warren as Higgins's housekeeper and from Michael Elphick who, as Doolittle, has the knobbly featured canniness of a cockney WC Fields. (Fortuitously elevated from dustman's outfit to morning dress, he projects the bemusement of a displaced lottery winner.) But, as with all merely respectable productions of Pygmalion, you find yourself responding to it as though it were My Fair Lady manque and pining for the Lerner-Loewe songs.

Another musical spin-off that is arguably better than its source is Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate, where the off-stage bickerings of two formerly married, tempermental American thesps are paralleled by their on-stage turmoil in a revival of The Taming of the Shrew. The opening night of Ian Talbot's delightful staging was rained off - "Another Op'nin', Another Shower?" - but I caught up with it in the balmiest of conditions a few nights later. It's by no means a flawless production but it captures just the right witty, showbizzy spirit.

What Andrew C Wadsworth lacks in fullness of voice and charisma in the Fred Graham/Petruchio role he makes up for in charm and self-mocking inventiveness. As his sparring partner, Louise Gold is a comically commanding figure - outdoing herself in campy, gorge-rising revulsion and contentious, drop- dead postures on each successive verse of "I Hate Men". This is one of the most brilliant Broadway scores ever written and it is delivered here by performers who really know how to pace the song.

For my money, though, Issy Van Randwyck turns Lois Lane into too cartoonie a gaping dumb-blonde sexpot. In a number like the hilarious "Always True to You in My Fashion", you should be able to hear the shifts between butter- wouldn't-melt mock innocence and on-the-make raunch in the voice but Ms Van Randwyck has to rely unduly on physical gesture.

The cast is full of attractively quirky performers - none more endearing than Gavin Muir and Rob Edwards as a pair of Runyon-esque gangsters who have a financial interest in the inset show remaining on. "It's entertaining, vivacious and calculated to please the discerning theatre-goer. You can quote me," reports one of them encouragingly. The same goes for this Kiss Me Kate. They can quote me.

`Pygmalion' at the Albery Theatre, London WC2 to 4 Oct (0171-369 1730); `Kiss Me Kate' at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1, to 14 Aug (0171-486 2431)

Paul Taylor