West Yorkshire Playhouse
8 February 2017
Updating any play to a present day setting with present-day trappings inevitably raises questions about whether that play is able to ‘transcend’ its original period and prove that it’s relevant in a different time setting. In the case of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion these questions seem especially pertinent: can the story of a flower girl elevated in society by the alteration of her speech prove functional in a time where figures like Jade Goody are cultural icons and countless reality TV shows make a positive virtue of dialect. The answer with regards to Headlong theatre’s entertaining and thought provoking production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is a qualified yes.
Qualified because underneath the many thought provoking and visual innovations brought by director Sam Pritchard is the basic issue that in Britain in early 2017 how one speaks- and even where one comes from- is simply not the barrier to social mobility it once was- which lessens the impact bombastic linguist Henry Higgins’s promise to transform flower girl Eliza Doolittle by changing her speech. Similarly the transformation in her appearance is that less dramatic simply because fashions have changed – bomber jacket and trackie bottoms to blouse and leggings is visually less dramatic than grubby grab to Edwardian regalia.
For lovers of the original play Headlong’s trademark innovations of sound and vision offer a lot of challenge. Extended sequences of played and replayed words and vowel sounds plus an entire first scene where actors are overdubbed with the voices of others carefully and cleverly make you think about the whole nature of speech, what it is and how it defines us. For this old stick in the mud, it was a case of ‘less is more’; a scene where Mrs Pearce, Higgins’s voice of practical reason (upgraded in this production from a housekeeper to a lab assistant) dances to a hip hop disco beat felt that step too far.
However the rock solid basis of the evening is a play that is both intelligent and character driven and asks sound questions of its audience; in this case it is served by a strong cast; notable amongst them was Liza Sadovy as Higgin’s mother who managed to expertly channel an entire lifetime of love, cynicism and weariness towards her bombastic son into a series of sighs and shrugs and Ian Burfield as Eliza’s father who delivered one of his trademark ‘Shavian’ diatribes direct to the audience in the form of a stand up comic complete with mike and spotlight.
At the end of the day however any production of Pygmalion stands or falls by its Eliza and Higgins: here the pairing of Natalie Gavin and Alex Beckett were terrific. Gavin’s own Bradford (actually Denholme near Bradford) accent didn’t jar at all; indeed it came across much better than many of the ‘mockney’ Elizas I’ve seen in the past. Headlong’s filmic interludes served her really well allowing the audience to see close to the range of emotions flitting across her face, drawing them into Eliza Doolittle’s painful emotional journey. Gavin was effectively counterpointed by Beckett who gave a role that can be in danger of being ‘dumbed down’ into a blustering braggart a real depth and believability. I was concerned when at one point Gavin sang a number from ‘My fair Lady’ that the production would follow that musical’s false sentimental end (one which Shaw hated) but I needn’t have worried. In a play about the power of speech the emotion in their relationship was portrayed in a heart-breaking final scene through looks and gestures when ironically speech had failed them, Beckett in particular played across and against and across Shaw’s bombastic text allowing us a real sense of the emotional man beneath the bully.
Until 25 February 2017