Review: UCATT’s Pygmalion

Riona Millar 17 October 2019

University of Cambridge Asia Theatre Tour returns for its home-run with George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 classic play.

George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, named after the Greek myth of the sculptor who creates his ideal woman from stone who then magically comes to life, tells the story of the phonetician Henry Higgins, who takes in common-as-muck Eliza Doolittle and turns her into the “Fair Lady” of the musical that Pygmalion inspired. He makes a bet with fellow linguist, Colonel Pickering, that he can transform this “heartless guttersnipe” into a duchess within six months, and the play ostensibly follows that progress.

In Chloe Lansley’s sparkling production, making its mark in the Corpus Playroom after a month-long tour of Asia, we are very much aware of Shaw’s social commentary inherent to the play, so often lain by the wayside.

Image credit: Phoebe Schenk

I must confess, before I go any further: I am always going to be biased in any review I produce concerning a George Bernard Shaw play, given that he’s a bit of a literary hero of mine. (Did you know that he was in the very first production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in English, playing alongside his good friend and translator of the play, Eleanor Marx?) The way that bias will go, however, depends on how good the show is. Bad GBS is automatically DISASTROUS; spectacular GBS is, however, deserving of the word spectacular: and this production falls solidly into the latter category.

Spectaular is the adjective that I would like to apply to every single member of the show’s relatively small cast, whom I shall name now so that I might put them in the spotlights that will inevitably follow them across a West End stage: Emily Beck, Will Batty, Sam Tannenbaum, Anna Bullard, Archie Williams, Rory Russell and Flora Macangus. They are electric to watch, compelling in every possible moment; even the fading lights on a single actor left onstage in some moment of contemplation or emotion is perfectly crafted. George Bernard Shaw’s wit and humour is captured absolutely – I think he would have thought it was uproariously funny as I and the rest of the audience did.

Rory Russell’s performance as Mrs Higgins was so brilliant that I think he genuinely has a future on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK; indeed this was a show where an actor’s gender and character had no need to match up, with most of the cast appearing in very stylish dresses at one point or another. Pygmalion is the sort of the play that has yet to cease to be relevant, and as such can be played off with a decent amount of timelessness – so a Mary Quant-esque dress on the newly transformed Eliza fits in perfectly well, while the static of a gramophone skipping on records or a radio changing channels perfectly suits the brief moments where scenes change. (I also really enjoyed watching the cast doing the Bossa Nova).

As the theatre editor for The Cambridge Student, I have privileged access to the entirety of Cambridge Theatre; even the shows I do not see I am able to get a sense of in my editing of other reviews. From this, I am getting the sense that we are strapping into a year of real theatrical brilliance, and UCATT’s Pygmalion is leading the charge. If, by chance, you try and fail to get ahold of me this evening, it may be that I am seeing it again.

Image credit: Phoebe Schenk

5 stars.