Tim Hughes is utterly absorbed in the technical overload of the Oxford Playhouse’s radical new Pygmalion
It has become de rigueur in the theatre to take a much-loved period piece and reinvent it in some wild and wacky way. It is never good enough, it seems, to play anything straight. After all, the logic goes, we’ve all seen everything countless times already so need a fresh reimagining to keep us on our toes.
Even with that in mind, Headlong’s production of Pygmalion is about as shocking, and absorbing, as a work first premiered just over 100 years ago can be.
Bernard Shaw’s classic satire on the class system is dragged into the present day in director Sam Pritchard’s bold and disorientating production, which plays fast and loose with the original while staying faithful to its sentiment and strong moral message.
Eliza Doolittle is a feisty but poverty-stricken flower girl selling her blooms in the West End. Henry Higgins is the pompous professor of phonetics who wagers with his companion that he can transform her into a lady in time for the ambassador’s garden party.
We all know the plot, if not from Shaw, than by the cheesy musical My Fair Lady (to which there are allusions, nods and winks – and even a rendition of its classic number 'Wouldn't it be Lovely' ).
But nothing prepares one for this blitz of processed sound and vision.
That the action is transposed to the present day is the least surprising element.
The mechanics of sound recording (in Shaw’s original, the wax cylinder, and in ours, electronic recording devices, sequencers and samplers) take centre stage, at times overwhelming the action in a full-on sonic assault.
This is coupled with artfully screened interludes pre-recorded on the streets of London.
It's an intriguing use of technology and stagecraft which at times resembles a DJ set – indeed, one scene features Higgins and his co-conspirator Colonel Pickering dancing about to mixed up samples of speech.
It’s lots of fun, if sometimes just a bit silly. It is also striking – not just sonically but visually, and with a big social point to make.
Higgins, played by a brilliantly cocksure and posturing Alex Beckett, oozes arrogance and misogyny (and has a very odd relationship with his mother).
He is still a snob, but one we all recognise. Bearded, wearing trainers and tracksuit bottoms and living in a minimal central London apartment he would fit in with any middle class dinner party or hipster gathering.
He is spoiled, detestable but also just a little bit pathetic when compared to Eliza – the obvious star, played with honesty and great vocal dexterity by Natalie Gavin. Her rich Yorkshire accent is as faultless as her cut-glass received pronunciation. I'm still not sure which is her normal voice – nor do I particularly want to know, for it would spoil the magic.
An intriguing production then. Funny, entertaining, disorientating, noisy and, above all, thought-provoking.
* Pygmalion runs at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday