The one without the songs or super big hats, but it does have those classic phrases written on boards. Nonetheless it is just as ‘luverly’ with a sleek, scientific 1930’s setting, adding oomph to all the characters, pushing the ‘science’ and ‘class’ to the forefront. All this modernism is matched by terrific pacing and energy and a lot of comedy. (For example, Higgins home is very much a working lab!) Patsy Ferran also makes the leap from self-improving working class woman to ‘lady’ convincingly and intelligently, and we retain our sympathy for her throughout. Plus a chance to see brilliant Bertie Carvel post-Trump as a scientifically minded Professor Higgins — he has charts, diagrams, heaps of research and a very pointy pointer.
What I loved about this production was the focus on characters — the minor characters such as Mrs Higgins (the Professor’s mortified but flinty mother); a substantial but feckless Alfred Doolittle; a lab coated Mrs Pearce and a charmingly besotted Freddie Eynsford-Hill became part of the proceedings again, rather than onlookers or fillers. Colonel Pickering (Michael Gould) was made younger and so became Henry Higgins partner in social science as they plotted about where they could take Eliza next, rather than the usual jovial old duffer— although he retained his kindness and social decency. Clara Eynsford Hill (Lizzy Connolly) rocked some beautiful 1930s looks, whilst practicing the new ‘small talk’ with her bewildered mother reluctantly in tow.
In a very stripped down setting, Covent Garden is conveyed by a whirl of people bustling about in the evening gloom with umbrellas and some pillars, and the various homes by very simple walls, and some furnishings — (mostly charts). But this stops the play being a period piece as we’re in the 1930’s, so ofcourse everything is modern! The set also creates some fun as Eliza and Higgins stalk and snub each other in and out of doors and around the balcony of his mother’s house; Mrs Higgins protectively fights to keep her velvet chaise lounge unmarked as Alfred Doolittle will keep leaping up and down on it, and in a terrible moment, Higgins opens a door straight into the face of a poor servant, who just happened to be there. But this is very characteristic of Higgins — who doesn’t see, and only sees who he wants to see.
The momentous ball is less of a ball and more about Eliza being dragged hither and thither before men in suits; there is less showiness, very little dancing and a lot of fun as Freddie is chased repeatedly out of the event clutching ever increasingly beautiful bouquets of flowers. Another nice touch is Patsy Ferran’s ball gown, which is very classical, and harks back to the mythic basis of George Bernard Shaw’s work.
The only weaknesses are Patsy Ferran’s look at the beginning (not sure which era she’s in), though the squashed violets look great! and perhaps too much springy energy amongst the cast — they are very rarely still, Higgins and Eliza never stop leaping and racing about! Additionally there is a lady in red at the beginning lounging on the stage who perhaps leads us into the world of the play — is she begging, is she soliciting? She is an ominous presence and a bit distracting — but she soon disappears. However, these are all minor quibbles as the energy and driving pace of the play, the wholeness of the characters, is terrific.
Very much an ensemble piece, Bertie Carvel makes the leap and convinces as someone who loves Eliza (in his own strange and selfish way), and Patsy Ferran as a frustrated lady turning the tables on her ‘creator’ is formidable, and touching. Fighting a full bath is also something to behold as she hangs onto door frames for dear life. Taheen Modak makes an adorable Freddy, left with an unwanted cab in the rain and then wowed by Eliza — he’s constantly turning up at the door with flowers. John Marquez fills out Alfred Doolittle making us believe in his craftiness, then pain once he’s become a sponsored philosopher and even worse, middle class — for a change, this character is fully rounded and not just a comedic stereotype. Penny Layden is great as Mrs Pearce keeping everyone in check, and best of all is Sylvestra Le Touzel as a lady of letters and socially horrified mother of Higgins, especially when he comes to tea with her friends — and brings his friends along as a surprise! Equally powerful is seeing Higgins and Doolittle squaring off against one another (verbally) as Higgins fights blackmail and extortion, and expertly blats Doolittle’s games back at him.
In being less decorous and picturesque, we focus more on the words, really feel the class and culture clash, and cheer Eliza on as she and Freddy set out to match Professor Higgins words and methods, and do more than he can do — be nice to people!