Let’s start with the positives, shall we? Director Sam Pritchard’s interpretation of the words of Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion revives the text in a refreshing, relevant way that brings a new take to the play that will no doubt intrigue and impress modern audiences. The negatives? It all goes a little bit too far.
Sure, dressing the cast in modern clothes is okay, even keeping the text the same and including references to shillings and guineas yet continue chucking about modern notes is acceptable. But, if you really want to test an audience’s patience, add in random elements of DJ technology, bizarre outbursts of ludicrous dancing and a frustrating lip-synced opening sequence. In my opinion, interpreting a classic text is a very different thing to adding strange twists to it and for me it just didn’t work. The audience seemed to fall into two halves: people who chuckled at the odd, modern additions and people who really wished the production stopped messing about and stuck to the script.
If the play gets stripped back and stops trying to be quirky, it is actually very, very good indeed. Alex Beckett is sublime as Henry Higgins and really makes the role his own – in this show he’s not a pompous, impatient old man but an aloof and arrogant bachelor. He handles the role with humour and sincerity, and I find myself rooting for Higgins when really the text doesn’t allow much room for it. I think part of this is due to Natalie Gavin’s Eliza Doolittle being particularly unlikeable in the first act (she calms down in the second, which makes for much more relaxed viewing). She gives the character somewhat of a feral edge, which just doesn’t work – the audience is supposed to really root for Eliza and find her “common” attitudes and behaviours intriguing. As a pure Yorkshire lass myself, I should probably be immune to the aggravation of the Yorkshire accent… sadly, in this play, I’ve never found it more grating.
Ian Burfield plays Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father. He plays it with a strong cockney accent… and I wonder exactly who thought that worked when his daughter was quite so “born and bred” Yorkshire? I’ve seen Burfield on stage before and again he didn’t disappoint. He’s a commanding presence and performs with real conviction.
The set (designed by Alex Lowde) is a little intrusive at first, with the cast just inches from the front row, but the rest of the scenes are played out in well thought-out spaces with interesting levels.
Overall, the play’s fine writing still shines through (thanks largely due to Alex Beckett’s great acting). It’s just a shame the production doesn’t shine quite so brightly.
Catch Pygmalion at West Yorkshire Playhouse until February 25th.