An engagingly inventive staging of George Bernard Shaw’s classic Pygmalion disappoints with some insufficient character development, writes SUSAN DARLINGTON
Pygmalion West Yorkshire Playhouse Leeds 3/5
Notions of class have changed in the century since George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was first staged. It’s nonetheless still deeply ingrained in society, affecting everything from job opportunities to healthcare access.
This is the starting point for Headlong’s new co-production, which confounds social expectations in the first act by having the cast lip-sync to a prerecorded script while surtitles flash up on stage.
The artifice is furthered by the actors standing in front of a wood-panelled structure, through which the “true” set can be glimpsed in a long rectangular window.
It’s a brilliantly inventive opening that places Eliza Doolittle (Natalie Gavin) as a Bradford flower girl and Henry Higgins (Alex Beckett) as the bearded hipster phonetician who accepts a bet to transform her into a lady.
The creativity continues throughout the scenes in which she’s being tutored, with sound being almost constantly manipulated (at one point recordings being looped into a surreal hip-hop track).
There’s similarly original use of film, especially when Eliza is recorded and three differently angled monochrome heads appear on the back wall.
The idea of multiple selves is repeated within the physical environment. At the start of her education the streetwise Eliza is pushed into a claustrophobic sound booth. As she nears her graduation she attends afternoon tea with Higgins’s mother in an equally confined glass-panelled lounge, neatly illustrating the social constraints in which they’re both placed.
As Eliza becomes increasingly refined and glassy-eyed the play becomes more traditionally staged. This focus on character rather than sound design succeeds in capturing the inner turmoil within the central character, as she slowly realises that she’s been left in a social no-man’s land.
Beckett’s Higgins, however, remains resolutely one-dimensional and it’s a character flatness that negatively infects the play’s final impressions, despite director Sam Pritchard’s earlier creative flair.
Tours until May 13.
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