Photo credit: Futoshi Sakauchi
Laughs but little poetry in a pantomime Pygmalion
In his director’s notes, Liam Halligan references George Bernard Shaw’s 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature citation for “work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty.” If this is the standard which Smock Alley Theatre 1662’s current production of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” aims for, it’s a standard against which it falls short. There’s lots of laughs and a reasonable smattering of humanity in this exploration of slavery to middle-class morality, but there’s little satire, less stimulation and even less poetry in a production that often feels like a pantomime, with characters and laughter delivered with big, bold, broad strokes and very little else.
First performed in 1913, Shaw’s classic tale of the loud mouthed, Cockney flower seller transformed into a gentile young lady by the eccentric Professor Higgins is probably best associated in most people’s minds with its 1956 musical adaptation “My Fair Lady,” and with the movie of the musical subsequently released in 1964, featuring Rex Harrison and a singing Audrey Hepburn dubbed by the legendary Marni Nixon. In Smock Alley Theatre 1662’s current production, director Liam Halligan shows a flash of idealism in attempting to remain true to Shaw’s less popular ending rather than to that of the musical version. Yet, as in his recent production, the excellent “Risk Everything,” Halligan once again gives up subtlety and nuance to dealing in entertainment minus enlightenment. As a result, “Pygmalion’s” subtleties never really shine through and the ending, indeed its last half hour, feels like it belongs to another show once the laughter gives way to something of more substance.
Theatrically, “Pygmalion” is not all it might have been. Colm McNally’s Set and Lighting Design, Olga Criado-Monleon’s Costume Designs and Osgar Dukes Sound Design, appear confused, as if the team had never sat together in a production meeting. There’s Victorian furniture and what appears to be a swivel computer chair, images of open and closed mouths projected onto the back wall that would be more at home in a dentist’s office, 1960’s patterned women’s trousers that look completely out of place, even if thematically they were trying to say something, and a soundtrack that rarely lends anything to proceedings. This surprising lack of attention to detail causes the whole to suffer. But where “Pygmalion” is redeemed is with some strong, if sometimes uneven performances, all of which lean towards the larger than life.
Andrea Cleary is excellent as Clara and Miss Garnett, as is Tara Quirke as Mrs Eynsford Hill and the housekeeper Mrs Pearce, the latter’s Mrs Pearce being particularly good fun. Jamie Hallahan makes a good fist of a difficult situation playing an almost caricature Freddy, Eliza’s admirer. Deirdre Monaghan as the long suffering Mrs Higgins is a sheer delight. As is Gerard Byrne as the gentlemanly Colonel Pickering. Paul Meade’s Henry Higgin’s struggles at times to negotiate the fine balancing act between self-obsession and self-awareness, with his scenes with his Mother and Pickering often generating more chemistry than those with Eliza. Yet those scenes which do work well, work extremely well. Anna Sheils Mc-Namee’s Eliza is a force of nature for the most part, a woman who often communicates as much, if not more, with her arms as with her troubled voice. But the night really belongs to a show stealing David O’Meara, whose subtle, understated Alfred Dolittle, realised the humour, depth and poetic possibilities of Shaw’s wonderful script, reminding all of what was absent and of what could have been.
There’s some would argue that this type of production, which seems to take a "get as many bums on seats by making ‘em laugh" approach to a work like ‘Pygmalion,’ is an exercise in cynical theatre making. What Peter Brook calls Deadly Theatre, which “approaches the classics…imitating its memories of them, skimping some details, exaggerating the showy passages, forgetting the meaning.” There’s another argument, however, which could be made that this approach offers a sort of theatrical guilty pleasure. A pantomime approach indulging a “to hell with meaning, lets laugh” mentality towards the classics. An approach many do enjoy. If that’s your preference, you’ll certainly enjoy some good laughs in Smock Alley Theatre 1662’s production of "Pygmalion."
“Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw, runs at Smock Alley Theatre until September 3rd
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