There are things to appreciate and enjoy in the New Theatre’s “steam punk” production of George Bernard Shaw’s play.
For starters, thanks to Emma Wright, it has a fine Eliza Doolittle, the young woman transformed from Tottenham Court Road flower seller to high society trophy.
Designer Tom Bannerman’s set – an eye-catching Constructivist-influenced environment – looks very good.
The costumes (by Deborah Mulhall, the production’s director), put an interesting twist on the period observed.
But otherwise, Pygmalion is a decidedly patchy proposition at this stage in its evolution.
At the heart of the play – as in its spun-off musical My Fair Lady – is a wager laid between eccentric phonetics expert Professor Henry Higgins (Steve Corner) and the retired Colonel Pickering (Shan-Ree Tan), who developed his interest in languages serving in India.
Higgins maintains he can turn the guttersnipe Eliza into a perfect facsimile of an English duchess. Pickering begs to differ. Loser picks up the tab for the times spent on her instruction and rental of finery.
But what of Eliza? Neither Higgins nor Pickering seem to have any plan for the future of a young woman cut off from her working class roots and without friends or support in “society”.
Wright plays Eliza’s transformation from urchin to society belle gracefully. Her debut before Higgins’s mother (Colleen Cook) is nicely handled and the evening’s comic highpoint.
Corner attacks the role of Higgins with appealing if unvaried gusto. He certainly has the overgrown schoolboy aspect of the character down pat and gives us a sense of the man’s heartless enthusiasm for his experiment. What he lacks at the moment is a sense of any inner life and, therefore, the impact Eliza has on his singular worldview seems dulled.
Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s dustman father, is ineffectively played by Mark Norton. We see just a few flashes of the man’s joie de vivre and his contrastingly sinister aspects. There’s no evidence of the “native woodnotes wild” Higgins observes in his speech.
Mulhall’s direction moves the play reasonably well across its two and a half hours. I note that this opening performance comes off the back of a missed preview, which might account for some of its wobbles.
Shaw’s play is beautifully written and structured and though it’s a century old now, it can still speak to us about class, misogyny and the construction of identity. As yet, this production isn’t fully across its nuances.