The cloud that billows out into the audience at the opening of Philip Prowse’s staging of Shaw’s classic is probably dry ice, but it could just as easily be dust: This production is sadly old-school. Performers appear to be working independently of each other, with Rupert Everett’s Henry Higgins in a permanent grouchy sulk, Kara Tointon as Eliza Doolittle on charm overdrive, and Dame Diana Rigg, as Higgins’ mother, so relatively naturalistic that she might be playing in a TV version. The play is delivered, but not inhabited or consistently interpreted.
Production premiered last summer in Chichester with Everett as headliner and has been significantly recast for this West End transfer, timed for the summer tourist trade. Veteran director/designer Prowse’s initial concept seems to be that we’re in a meta-performance: a fake proscenium, footlights, and an old-fashioned curtain have been added to the Garrick stage. Certainly, the play exposes the extent to which society rewards the ability to speak and behave acceptably, and via Eliza’s increasing self-awareness and self-possession critiques this superficiality. But Prowse doesn’t pursue the life-as-performance metaphor, but rather serves up most of the play’s scenes straightforwardly.
Perhaps self-consciously working against associations his offstage persona as a gay matinee idol brings, Everett plays Higgins stock-straight, as an asexual man of science who has no engagement or interest in Eliza beyond her use to him as an object of study and, eventually, housemaid and minder. Sure, that’s how Shaw wrote it, but contempo sensibilities long for some glimmer of attraction, remorse or self-awareness as Eliza grows a backbone and turns against him in the second half.
UK soap star Tointon, a 2010 champ of TV competish “Strictly Come Dancing” and a former cast member of “EastEnders,” starts out so cartoonishly Cockney in the first Covent Garden-set scene that it’s as if she’s wandered in from a staging of “My Fair Lady” set in a 2,000-seater. She later eases into the role somewhat; the scene in which she first appears in newly socialized guise, at Mrs. Higgins’ tea party, is the show’s most successful due to the fine comic chemistry between Tointon, the supporting performers playing the Eynsford-Hill family, and the audience. Rigg, however, seems in another production as she presides serenely over, but doesn’t quite engage with, this exaggerated comic activity.
Production takes turn towards another form of stylization in the final confrontation scene between Eliza and Higgins: The actors sit on opposite sides of the proscenium and exchange barbs, the distance between them preventing chemistry or engagement. Perhaps Prowse wants auds to focus on Shaw’s words and message here, but it’s hard to fit this take within the earlier meta-theatrical frame.
Lighting (by Gerry Jenkinson) so dim it sometimes obscures actors’ expressions, and sets that creak and bounce on and offstage on manually operated trucks, add to the overall feeling of ad-hoc summer stock.
Ninety-nine years after it was written, Shaw’s indictment of the inequities of Britain’s class system continues to resonate. But this uneven production never seems to have found its footing either in Shaw’s time our own own.