Rupert Everett and Kara Tointon in Pygmalion
(© Johan Persson)
Rupert Everett and Kara Tointon in Pygmalion
(© Johan Persson)
Philip Prowse's production of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, now at the Garrick Theatre, tries to explore the darker aspects of the work, but the result is a fairly tepid piece of theater. Too often, the production does not seem to fully engage with the richness of Shaw's text.

Spotting a ragged Covent Garden flower girl with a vowel-mangling cockney accent, cantankerous professor of phonetics Henry Higgins (Rupert Everett) vows to his friend Colonel Pickering (the amiable Peter Eyre) that he could improve her speech to the point where she might pass as a duchess at an ambassador's ball. When the young girl, Eliza Doolittle (Kara Tointon) comes to him seeking elocution lessons, she becomes the subject of just such an experiment.

Everett is alternately languid and gruff as Higgins, sprawling on furniture and stuffing his hands in his pockets like a bored schoolboy. There's little sense of a man enamored by his own intellect; instead, his Higgins is hardened, and determinedly unsympathetic. Indeed, there's something a touch malevolent in his callous disregard for Eliza's feelings.

In the play's earlier scenes, Tointon is so fixated on nailing the character's voice that she conveys little sense of Eliza as a person. She seems most at ease in the scene where the "improved" Eliza is first introduced to the Eynsford Hills. Her posture is rigid and her speech is all strained gentility as she attempts to make small talk by describing her aunt's wicked gin habit.

Towards the end of the play, the actress does succeed in subtly expressing something of the girl, who thanks to Higgins' efforts, is now trapped between two worlds, neither fully one thing nor the other.

There are some strong turns among the support cast, notably the legendary Diana Rigg, who provides the voice of common sense as Higgins' wonderful mother.

Inspired by Shaw's own thoughts on what happens to Eliza afterwards, Prowse tacks on a coda that sees Eliza and Freddie showered in wedding confetti and Higgins' left scowling and alone. In their final scene together, Prowse maroons Tointon and a brooding, black-clad Everett at opposite ends of the gaudy, velvet-bedecked set, batting the lines to each other across a bare expanse of stage. There is a glimmer of the damage that has been done, but it's not enough to make this production shine.