Review: Pygmalion, New Theatre (NSW)

Lynne Lancaster

A thoughtful production that shows Shaw’s play is still relevant today, more than a century after its stage debut.
Review: Pygmalion, New Theatre (NSW)

Pygmalion. Image: Bob Seary.

New Theatre’s Pygmalion is an exciting and vibrant production of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play that inspired My Fair Lady.

The story is familiar to many: Eliza Doolittle is a poor, downtrodden flower girl with a defining Cockney accent who discovers a chance to break free from the barriers of her birth when she meets linguistics professor Henry Higgins. Can she? Will she?    

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Shaw’s play examines the major cultural divides cemented through class, education and money, the possibilities and limits of social mobility, and how your speech can define you and at times confine you. In Shaw’s play, there is an intense battle of wills between Eliza and Henry, reminiscent of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

What is interesting is that women have a great presence in the show: all three of the main women in Henry’s life (Eliza, his mother, and his housekeeper Mrs Pearce) are very concerned as to what will happen to Eliza at the end of the ‘experiment’.

Under Deborah Mullhall’s fluent direction, this production has been ‘steampunked’ to maintain the Edwardian era atmosphere while simultaneously giving it a fresh spin. Costumes, for example, are sometimes ‘futuristic Edwardian’.

Tom Bannerman’s fluid, single open set design includes a ramp instead of a staircase and cold white slats representing books rather than recreating a heavy oak-panelled library. Different locations are indicated by slight shifts of chairs or simply changing the cushions.

Both Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering are younger than how they are usually portrayed, which in some ways makes a lot of sense and also adds some bubbling undercurrents to the show. As the flamboyant professor, leonine Steve Corner is charismatic, enigmatic, arrogant and infuriating. Colonel Pickering, who acts as a foil to Higgins, is portrayed by Shan-Ree Tan as suave, gallant, and supportive of Eliza. He is far more sensitive to Eliza’s situation and treats her with great kindness and respect.

As Eliza, Emma Wright is a spitfire, strong and fiercely independent yet facing a crisis of confidence in her life once she becomes involved with Higgins.

Eliza’s father – Alfred Doolittle portrayed by Mark Norton – is a great natural philosopher but also shamelessly out for money. Higgins somewhat unwittingly interferes in his life too, forcing him to become ‘respectable’. He is torn when pushed into the middle class.

Mrs Higgins, Professor Higgins’s mother, becomes a stalwart support for Eliza and is terrifically played by Colleen Cook. She is highly critical of the way that her son and Pickering treat Eliza as if she were an inanimate object or simply a neutral subject for an experiment.

Handsome Robert Snars is elegant and charming as Freddy Eynsford-Hill who unexpectedly falls for Eliza, though we see far less of Freddy than in My Fair Lady.

An arresting, thoughtful and challenging production that shows Shaw’s play is still relevant today, more than a century after its stage debut.

4 stars ★★★★

Pygmalion
23 April – 25 May 2019 
New Theatre, Newtown NSW 
Tickets $20-$35

Director: Deborah Mullhall
Set Designer: Tom Bannerman
Lighting Designer: Mehran Mortezaei
Sound Designer: Patrick Eades
Assistant Director: Gundega Lapsa
Accent Coach: Helen Tonkin
Costume Assistant: Fiona McClintock
Cast: Colleen Cook, Steve Corner, Tiffany Hoy, Lisa Kelly, Emilia Kriketos, Natasha McDonald, Mark Norton, Robert Snars, Shan-Ree Tan, Sean Taylor, Vitas Varnas, Emma Wright, Tricia Youlden

 

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.