Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw
Garrick Theatre
(2011)

Kara Tointon has become the latest in what is an increasingly long line of West End stage debutantes in major roles who have achieved prior fame on small or large screens. Gone are the days when this only happened in panto.

Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw's morality tale about a guttersnipe who is rescued from selling flowers and an early grave by a toff promising to turn her into a Duchess, is timeless. It started out as the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea (hence the title) and, in a variant, is exciting audiences at the National as Frankenstein.

The good news is that these days, the instant stars usually have enough talent to carry off their new roles. The auguries seem a little uncertain in the early scenes, as the EastEnders and Strictly Come Dancing star's cockney accent came across as studied, as was some over-emphatic acting.

However, as soon as the ugly duckling begins to emerge as a swan in the making, the actress relaxes into character and doesn't look back.

By that stage, little Eliza Doolittle has become the subject of a bet between two linguists and confirmed bachelors. While Peter Eyre's jovial Colonel Pickering is the epitome of a Victorian gentleman, his fellow has all the charm of a modern day footballer remonstrating with a referee; and the manners to match.

In the role of Professor Henry Higgins, Rupert Everett is the star of the evening, managing to switch effortlessly between pomposity and bluster, not so much self-absorbed as self-obsessed, until despair becomes the order of the day, after the dignified Miss Doolittle tells him a few very perceptive home truths.

Before that, the Professor has actually done a good job with his invention, turning her into a robotic speaking machine capable of charming the upper classes with her accent if not vocabulary.

In time though, this genteel "monster" suffers exactly the same fate as Frankenstein's, finding herself adrift in a society where she has the manners and looks of the rich but not the background or money.

She is well contrasted with her honest father, Alfred the dustman played by Michael Feast, who only stepped into the role at the last minute but acquits himself ably enough, despite obvious nervousness.

The other star turn came from that queen of all she surveys and real-life Dame, Diana Rigg. She plays Higgins' mother to the manner born, chiding the show-off like the little boy that he still resembles, while offering kind support to the pet that he wants to throw away after his metaphorical Christmas celebrations have ended.

Shaw has turned the myth into something with much more of a message, as we discover in a painful debate after Eliza has won Henry his bet. The prototypically reserved English gentleman cannot express his love for the creature that he has created, while she finds the class barrier that he and society have erected insuperable. However, the sentimental playwright ensures a happy ending for his heroine (at least in his literal postscript, which is romantically staged to bring down the final curtain on this occasion).

Largely due to the efforts of Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn and the inimitable Stanley Holloway in the musical film version My Fair Lady, Pygmalion feels as comfortable as the slippers that the angered Eliza bitterly throws at her heartless inventor.

As such this revival, which is both directed and designed by Philip Prowse and enhanced by the casting of a trio of popular favourites, should keep the box office busy throughout this summertime run.

Philip Fisher