first night

Pygmalion

Carrie Gaunt is underwhelmed by Ooook's 'Pygmalion

 Don't be fooled. 'Pygmalion' does not = 'My Fair Lady.' The former is far less cheery than its musical counterpart and emphasises the darker elements of the legend: issues of class, independence and, to a large extent, misogyny. With such a brilliant script and storyline, Ooook! Productions have all the elements which should combine to create an arresting production, but various factors conspire to prevent the production from reaching its potential. Instead, I was left disappointed.

Shaw's Henry Higgins, far from being just a slightly curmudgeonly old professor with lurking tenderness under the crusty exterior, is a cruel, despotic and altogether unfeeling character and as such it's unsurprising that he comes across as eminently unlikeable. Ben Cushion's performance didn't attempt the frankly herculean task of trying to inject sympathy into his character and if this did mean that his eventual declaration of love for Eliza and resulting emotional outburst seemed insipid and flat, perhaps this was only to be anticipated. By and large, I found Cushion's performance impressive: his command of Shaw's prose was smooth and the general impression was of suitably casual nonchalance. However, paradoxically this meant that the (unfortunately all too frequent) inevitable first night stumbles were very disappointing and did seem to stop the performance, particularly the climatic scene, from flowing as it should have done.

Cushion is not an exception. Unfortunately control over language is something which this production consistently lacks. This mainly manifests itself in issues with vocal clarity. I cannot emphasise enough that if you are going to attempt any strong accent, be it Cockney or clipped upper class British, you have to be commited, audible and understandable. I would rather see a cast dispense with the accents altogether than flit constantly in and out of them, because that just leads to an inherently less immersive and polished performance. Furthermore, if you are working in a space with unpredictable or problematic acoustics, like John's Chapel, and in close proximity to the audience, you have to work out what is an acceptable and natural volume. Add to this occasional forgotten or slurred lines and you have a play which SHOULD be beautiful to listen to - Shaw has a real gift for quick-fired, witty social exchanges - but which too often is not. This is not helped by the fact that there is a sense of awkwardness about some of the scenes: some of the actors don't seem to know how to deal with such archaic language and pervasive modern tics creep in to the individual performances. This is particularly noticeable with Danielle Oliver, who clearly wants to inject colour into her performance but in doing so has apparently forgotten what the real function of a maid is, i.e. to provide a discreet background presence. Her resulting characterisation is overbearing where it should be quiet. I'm sorry to be pedantic, but parlour maids simply would not have provided sardonic comment on the action they witnessed with silent gestures or facial expressions - they would have been far too conscious that this kind of lack of respect could have cost them their position.

I felt that this jerkiness extended to the technical side of the production. I liked the decision to emphasise the Pygmalion sculptor myth at appropriate intervals, but the setting of these vignettes was clunky and took too long. I feel that, generally, and for what is essentially a small-scale domestic drama, the production tried to use far too much of the chapel, and used so many set pieces and unnecessary properties that scene changes were always painfully drawn out. I thought the decision to break the fourth wall from the outset and continue to do so through the interval was gratuitous and unnecessary. There is an unfortunate tendency in Durham Student Theatre generally to assume that a play which involves the audience is immediately better, and yet it's a principle which really needs to be used sparingly. The fourth wall is there for a reason. If breaking with it doesn't add anything to the performance I fail to see the point of breaking it at all.

I cannot conclude this review without mentioning Connie Byrne-Shaw's accomplished performance as Eliza Dolittle. Byrne-Shaw is the play's redeeming feature, both a hilarious pre-transformation Eliza and, equally impressively, a haunting, poised and almost doll-like presence as the 'educated' Eliza, whilst still retaining glimpses of her intrinsic vulnerability. She is also one of the only cast members who is vocally almost flawless, and whilst I do appreciate that with Shaw's language this is a difficult proposition for any cast, it must be recognised that a play becomes so much less enjoyable if the audience can't understand what the cast are actually saying.

I felt that this production didn't reach its peak. Pygmalion IS a wonderful story, a wonderful script and it is refreshing to see something different performed in Durham. But the production just didn't have the requisite control and smoothness to be as impressive as it could have been, and feels pervasively clumsy - a waste of a great script.

7 December 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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