“I’m going to see Pygmalion next week.” I told my housemate recently, only to be greeted by a blank response. “You know … like, My Fair Lady.” I elucidated. Said housemate’s expression was then suddenly less blank as we went onto discuss the much loved Audrey Hepburn musical with its memorable scenes at Ascot Racecourse and the Ambassador’s Ball. It’s only, as I was well aware, Pygmalion is a play and not a musical, and after having watched the first preview on Thursday May 12th, I can’t help but feel, despite its slick staging, the deliberately mainstream casting and inherent links to a musical classic may leave its tourist heavy audience feeling a little disappointed.
Negatives aside, it does seem that in Kara Tointon’s portrayal of Eliza Doolittle we have a rare example of perfect casting. In the last 18 months Tointon has gone from gritty East End realism in the form of the country’s best loved soap to the glamour of West End, more than holding her own alongside accomplished Hollywood star Rupert Everett whose camp representation of Henry Higgins appears to work perfectly even at this extremely early stage in the production’s run. Tointon’s recent transformation from small screen actress to glamorous Strictly Come Dancing winner is essentially what she must bring to the stage in the role of Eliza and certainly in the first act she did this comfortably. Her East End flower girl accent is endearing and comical, anyone would be hard pushed to criticise this performance on her West End debut.
In contrast, Everett slinks around the stage, prancing and tip-toeing like the exuberant personality he is. I just wonder how much of Everett himself is in his Henry Higgins character. In any other role he would be in danger of showing up his co-stars inexperience but fortunately this is the one role where it makes both portrayals more convincing.
The first two scenes run smoothly, on the streets of the East End and at 27A Wimpole Street, plush adobe of Higgins and his many servants although I can’t help but feel the desire for Tointon to burst into a rendition of Wouldn’t It Be Lovely? while she sells flowers to the aristocracy leaving the Opera. This feeling, I learnt, would not really budge for the entirety of the play. There is no Rain in Spain and Dover never exists in order for him to “move his bloomin’ arse!” The famous scene at Ascot racecourse is instead a tea party and Henry’s mother, the dialogue is identical to George Cukor’s 1964 film. The only change coming when Peter Sandys-Clark’s likeable but only fleetingly seen character of Freddy Einsford-Hill asks Miss Doolittle if she will be walking how via the park: “Not bloody likely!” comes the indignant reply. There is a knowing titter for the audience, who immediately spot this alternative climax to the scene.
To take Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion totally on face value however, this is a slick new production with simple, effective staging, stunning costuming and a highly competent cast of actors. Diana Rigg is faultless as Higgins’ mother. She brings some gravitas mid way through the first act just as the audience begin to feel the two protagonists are having far too much fun. In a recent interview, Tointon has even talked how she aspires to “speak with (Rigg’s) voice all of the time” No doubt then, that Kara in undoubtedly enjoying her transition from real life cockney sweetheart to sophisticated thespian.