BWW REVIEW: George Bernard Shaw's Edwardian Expression Of The Greek Myth Is Given A Steampunk Aesthetic In New Theatre's PYGMALION
Thursday 25th April 2019, 7:30pm, New Theatre
George Bernard Shaw's comic romance of the Cockney flower girl and the Phonetics professor is recreated in New Theatre's staging of PYGMALION. Director Deborah Mulhall presents this classic tale of the ultimate makeover bet with a steampunk styling to set it apart from other interpretations.
Based on the Greek myth in Ovid's Metamorphoses where sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with his ivory carving of a beautiful woman, George Bernard Shaw's PYGMALION has inspired many other works. Even if audiences aren't familiar with this particular work, most would be familiar with the concept of well to do sophisticated sorts deciding to give an unsuspecting scruffy person from below their circles a makeover following the challenge of a bet; think movies like Pretty Woman, Trading Places and She's All That. A more faithful representation of Shaw's work that many will know is Lerner and Loewe's 1956 musical My Fair Lady and the 1964 musical adaptation.
First presented in Vienna in 1913 this work draws on the late Victorian, early Edwardian sensibilities of the inhabitants of London. To add a level of interest to the work Mulhall has opted for the corseted and cog adorned stylings of the Steampunk trend where contemporary sci-fi and fantasy aficionados believe in a more machine obsessed early 20th century. Whilst adding a twist and a common theme to the costumes, this connection with the genre however serves no other purpose than design rather than trying to present a contemporary twist on the story.
Given how well known this work is, as even thought many may not have seen or read Pygmalion before, they are still likely to have seen My Fair Lady which lifts much of Shaw's text directly, PYGMALION is a tricky work to present. The familiarity means that timing must be pin point to land the expected laughs and characters must be clearly presented.
As Eliza Doolittle, Emma Wright grows into the role, overcoming initial nerves to deliver a strong expression of the flower girl turned would be duchess. She ensures that Eliza's broken spirit is clearly shown in contrast to her initial fire born in poverty and her return to recognition of power once she realizes she has a hold over Higgins. She manages Eliza's changing voice remarkably well, even managing to channel Audrey Hepburn for Eliza's post transformation sound.
Higgin's housekeeper Mrs Pearce is presented with Latino sass by Natasha McDonald who gives the role a delicious power as she spars with Higgins, standing up to her employer as she highlights the influence the help had on the masters and mistresses of the upper classes. Shan-Ree Tan delivers a relatively subdued expression of Colonel Pickering as he tries to provide a civilized foil to Higgin's insensitivity but ultimately allows what is supposed to be the older gentleman become more of a wallflower.
Steve Corner is the standout of the show with brilliant dialogue capturing Higgin's devotion to the English language and at times replicating Eliza's gutter sounds. He also has the most natural and unforced expression with an intuitive presentation. He eases between the seductive groveling and the self-centered ignorance of anyone else's feelings with a smoothness that makes it understandable that he has been able to sweet talk Mrs Pearce out of resigning repeatedly. His physicality conveys the assured confidence of an educated middle-class man that is in no way hampered by social expectations as he chooses to simply ignore the protocols of his station.
The rest of the cast unfortunately lets this work down with poor imitations of the required accents, movement that its too contrived and unnatural with overplayed expressions. While it is acknowledged that New Theatre is a ProAm level company that draws on a wide range of sources for its performers, a scan of the program indicates a strength of professionally trained performers and seasoned members of the New Theatre that have appeared in a number of their performances so it would be expected that these issues would have been dealt before opening night with or different casting choices made.
Corner, Wright and McDonald's performances make PYGMALION worth catching and hopefully the rest of the cast will improve as the season progresses.