Bertie Carvel is unrecognisable from his last appearance at the Old Vic when he not only looked like Donald Trump in The 47th, he captured every nuance of speech, glance and gesture of the former president. He does, though, play a character with an equally monstrous ego, a man of utter self-absorption and fired with a passion for his own self-aggrandisement. This is a Henry Higgins with more than a touch of Aspergers – he’s a tweedy version of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and his Watson is Michael Gould’s charmingly avuncular Colonel Pickering.
Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion (combined here with his 1938 screenplay) was always a comedy of manners that satirised its male characters and left all the good sense to its three main women. There is Higgins’s mother (Sylvestra Le Touzel a fine portrayal of maternal exasperation), his housekeeper (Penny Layden) and, of course, his pupil, Eliza Doolittle.
Patsy Ferran is an exuberant Eliza, playing the first act broadly for laughs and maturing in the second into a woman fired by her need for independence. If you’ve only ever seen the musical version, My Fair Lady, you might be taken aback by the very different ending here – this is the one originally written by Shaw who was no sentimentalist.
This is a rapid fire production, Shaw’s witticisms delivered with machine gun accuracy by this excellent cast. It’s an evening of just two hours including the interval and at times you feel that Richard Jones’ production is hurtling through and losing some of Shaw’s underlying evisceration of English class and snobbery along the way.
Nothing, though, can take away from the performances. Patsy Ferran undergoes a remarkable transformation from Cockney flower girl to a draped goddess at the ambassador’s reception to a woman who is very much the professor’s equal, even her clothes resembling his as she steals his professional thunder. As her father, Alfred Doolittle, John Marquez is a marvel of sly swagger undone by Higgins and “middle-class morality”. As Higgins himself, the marvellous Carvel is yet again a dynamo, darting across the stage, hunched like a human question mark and blissfully unself-aware.
Pygmalion runs at the The Old Vic until 28th October. For more information, and for bookings, please visit www.oldvictheatre.com.
Photos by Manuel Harlan.