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A CurtainUp London London Review

A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere - no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift or articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible; and don't sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon. — Professor Higgins
Rupert Everett as Henry Higgins and Kara Tointon as Eliza Doolittle (Photo: Johan Persson)
Philip Prowse's recast Pygmalion comes to the London stage from Chichester with a dark and brooding, even angry Professor Higgins in Rupert Everett's performance as the expert on the English language. This serves to emphasise the social manipulation of Shaw's play, not the romantic comedy it became when reinvented as the delightful musical My Fair Lady, although Shaw had originally dubbed it a romance in five acts. True there is much to laugh at in this most accessible of Shaw's comedies but don't expect a happy ending. In fact the ending which shows a glimpse of Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Peter Sandys-Clarke) in the uniform of a First World War Officer reminds us that Shaw's play was set in 1912 just before the war to end all wars changed the social landscape of Britain for ever.

It may be that Philip Prowse is conveying some of Shaw's own misogyny in the arrogant way in which Eliza (Kara Tointon) is treated by the academic bachelor. Higgins has not thought through what the long term effect will be on the street flower girl given a perfect accent, society manners and a brief interlude of the acceptance that comes with wealth and position although he alludes to her being able to get a job in a shop. His companion Colonel Pickering (Peter Eyre) at least is a gentleman in his treatment of Eliza. As Eliza says, "I sold flowers; I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me, I'm not fit to sell anything else."

The opening scene of this production set in Covent Garden with the Eynsford-Hills emerging from the Opera House. Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" is a tongue in cheek allusion to women taking over the world with the incipient Suffragette moment .

It is hard to like Rupert Everett's glowering Higgins but it does serve to underline the darker aspects of this comedy. Dark eye make up and an unsmiling countenance make him look more Dracula-like than handsome. Kara Tointon scrubs up very well in the transition from grubby street seller to lady in a suitably uncharismatic but realistic performance. I liked Roberta Taylor's Mrs Pearce, the housekeeper who is the only female influence on Higgins, apart from his lovely mother played by Diana Rigg, with great comic assurance in Eliza's test venture into polite society. Mickey Feast gives us a slice of Cockney life as Alfred Doolittle, the plot twist of the change in his fortune as the recipient of morality reform funding as unlikely as winning the lottery today. Peter Eyre's confident presence has Pickering's paternalism and solidity.

Prowse's set with its screen borders in red and gilt as if inspired by Covent Garden's proximity to Chinatown has panels of marbled paint effect and curiously light bulb surrounds. Maybe this is an allusion to the meta theatrical? Higgins' study is awash with tall bookcases with an old fashioned desk and chairs and contrasts nicely with his mother's more elegant drawing room. The ball scene is again cut as it often is so we only see Eliza after she has won the bet for Higgins.

Allowing for the saturnine Higgins, which has the effect of making you think about the ethics, the real delight of Shaw's play is ever present in this well spoken production. Shaw's wonderful wit making the lines as fresh as the day they were written and the verbal comedy as captivating as ever.

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Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed and designed by Philip Prowse

Starring: Rupert Everett, Diana Rigg, Peter Eyre, Kara Tointon, Michael Feast
With: Helen Millar, Marty Cruikshank, Peter Sandys-Clarke, Roberta Taylor, Rebecca Birch, Stuart Bowman, Freya Dominic, Brendan Hooper
Lighting: Gerry Jenkinson
Sound: Avgoustos Psillas for Autograph Sound
Running time: Two hours 10 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 412 4662
Booking to 3rd September 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 30th May 2011 performance at the Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0HH (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)

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