New Theatre, April 25
Bernard Shaw, often a wanton provocateur in matters of religion, politics and spelling, was certainly a forthright champion of equality, whether of gender, race or class, and his gift for comedy was blessed with a rare timelessness. Pygmalion is now 107 years old, yet the humour is as sharp-edged as if it were penned yesterday, with many lines so delicious as to generate laughter even if their delivery is limp. When the acting truly serves the writing, we see the brilliance of Shaw’s mind, presenting both sides of an argument with impeccable logic, and generating comedy from the verbal ping-pong of reasonableness being made to seem inanity, and vice versa, line by line.
To say director Deborah Mulhall’s production is uneven is like describing Mount Everest as a hill. Yet lovers of the play will still find much to enjoy, most particularly because Emma Wright is such an appealing Eliza: variously warm, funny, feisty, touching, gracious and noble. Her transition from coarseness to gentility under Professor Higgins’s tuition is convincing, and she hits all the comedic marks in the scene where Higgins first unleashes her upon his mother’s guests. Her physical acting, although not without occasional lapses, can be so good that we see the barest shiver of tension electrify her body at an unwanted touch from Higgins.
Most importantly her chemistry with Steve Corner’s Higgins works. His is a younger Higgins than most, which ever so slightly amplifies the sexual frisson between them, despite Higgins’s dogged clinging to bachelorhood being largely motivated by his adoration for his all-wise mother (a creditable Colleen Cook). Corner (almost playing Hugh Grant playing Higgins) makes his character likable, despite the litany of foibles. Unfortunately some of his losses of temper are played like a cluster-bomb exploding, where a drizzle of gunpowder would have served.
The minor leads more of less suffice, except Mark Norton’s Doolittle. What should be a larger-than-life presence – a foil for Higgins’s own – shrinks to something like a shy tailor, although here’s my point about Shaw’s writing: most of Doolittle’s lines still manage to earn their laughs.
Mulhall has chosen to impose fatuous, distracting steampunk motifs on her costuming, and issues with the convergence of lighting and blocking must be addressed. But, if you love the play, go and see Emma Wright’s Eliza.
Until May 25.