‘Pygmalion’ bridges gap at Old Vic

Peter Hall revival comes to life in England

A number of critics catching Peter Hall‘s exquisitely spoken revival of “Pygmalion” at its Theater Royal Bath premiere in July suggested it should transfer to the West End. The only problem? No theater was free.

Enter Kevin Spacey. Faced with a giant hole in his Old Vic program due to the postponement of Sam MendesBridge project — family health reasons forced actor Stephen Dillane to withdraw — Spacey and producer John Richardson boarded a train to see Hall’s production on tour at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theater. Two months later, the deal was done.

Beginning previews May 7, Hall’s production boasts a solid Higgins in Tim Pigott-Smith. But it’s the star-making turn from a poised yet vulnerable Michelle Dockery as Eliza that rivets attention.

There are also treasurable perfs in crucial supporting roles.

Una Stubbs is in commanding form as the redoubtable housekeeper, subtly showing glimpses of heart beneath a brisk manner. Tony Haygarth, meanwhile, almost steals the show with a superbly energized and wholly unpatronizing Alfred Doolittle. Haygarth’s breath control alone could win him awards.

Another play offering serious acting opportunities is Enid Bagnold‘s “The Chalk Garden.” Unseen in London since its 1956 premiere, it will resurface next June at the Donmar Warehouse. Michael Grandage directs, with the pivotal role of the governess, Miss Madrigal, played by Penelope Wilton.

Wilton’s mesmerizing Deborah in Harold Pinter‘s “A Kind of Alaska” in 1998, and her magisterial Regina in “The Little Foxes” (an early outing for now prominent helmer Marianne Elliott), were highlights of the Donmar’s Mendes years.

Ever since Grandage took over in 2002, he and Wilton have been looking for projects together, their plans finally coming to fruition earlier this year with Wilton’s fierce perf in “John Gabriel Borkman.”

The late Kenneth Tynan, the doyen of British critics, wrote of “The Chalk Garden,” “It may well be the finest artificial comedy to have flown from an English pen since the death of Congreve.””I don’t know whether that’s true,” Grandage told Variety, “But it does take your breath away at the brilliance of thoughts coming from the mouths of a range of characters. Every person speaks with a different voice, but with real intelligence and wit. I love that it takes as the premise a dark story about a very dysfunctional family but allows us to examine that through comedy.”

Prior to that on the Donmar sked, vexed relationships between mothers and sons are held up to poignant scrutiny in Peter Gill‘s 1976 drama “Small Change.” As sparely written as it is highly charged, the play will be revived by its author, whose recent work includes his meticulous National Theater production of “The Voysey Inheritance.”

When not rehearsing his forthcoming production of “Othello” — the casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ewan McGregor and Kelly Reilly ensured that its 13-week run sold out in just one day — Grandage is adding detail to his 2008-09 season of the Donmar at Wyndham’s Theater, where Judi Dench will join his production of Yukio Mishima’s “Madame de Sade.”

“The play has two colossal parts for great leading actors,” says Grandage. “I haven’t even begun looking for the daughter, but for years I’ve been looking for the opportunity to work with Judi Dench.”

Perhaps out celebrating her newest casting, Dench was spotted grinning heartily at the opening night of “Hairspray.” Small wonder. Jack O’Brien‘s precision-engineered production has survived its transatlantic journey remarkably intact.

On the downside, Mel Smith mugs his way through the role of Tracy’s father. Unlike the touchingly straight-faced Dick Latessa on Broadway,  Smith is at irritating pains to point out to auds the oddness of dancing with a man. Ben James-Ellis is a rather anodyne Link Larkin. But all the other leads fire up the stage with real zest.

In her West End debut, Leanne Jones is a spunky, immensely appealing Tracy, but the most pleasant surprise is Michael Ball‘s Edna. Getting into a dress has clearly released Ball — his usual over-bright stage persona has vanished. Ironically for someone in heels, padding and wigs, he now looks more relaxed and happy onstage than ever before. The actor — and audiences — are clearly having a ball.

With unanimous raves from local critics, this show might be a rare case of a hit Broadway musical repeating its success in London.

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