The Town Hall in Kensington is a non-traditional venue for theatre and as such presents an array of challenges for the creative team behind the British Players production of George Bernard Shaw’s, Pygmalion. As we negotiate our way into our temporary seats we get an immediate chance to see Maggie Modig’s set. The stage is split with Professor Higgins’ study and drawing room stage right and Mrs. Higgins’ drawing room stage left. A central curtain at the back of the stage is flanked by painted backdrops of the London skyline. On the apron of the raised stage stand three columns and two benches indicating a third venue.
We hear the sound of rain and a street light is lit stage right. The third venue is established as Covent Garden with Mrs. Eynsford-Hill (Ruth Vernet) and her children, Clara (Erin Schwartz) and Freddy (Todd Mazzie) attempting to find a taxi. The interior venues are not lost as much from the light as we would hope and the rain sound effect vanishes as quickly as it arrived despite the dialogue making it clear it is still raining. As for the dialogue itself, all the actors are mic’d up, which may be dictated by the acoustics of the venue but it takes some getting used to.
After a chance meeting in the opening scene between Higgins (Dan Owen), Colonel Pickering (John Allnutt) and Eliza Doolittle (Jenn Robinson), scene two takes us inside the home of Professor Higgins. Owen gives a strong performance with anger and playfulness always bubbling under the surface of his portrayal of the Professor. He captures the lack of empathy of the character and there is a truth in his work sometimes missing from some of the other members of the cast. Allnutt brings the right amount of affable bluster to the role of Pickering but his delivery is too presentational, something that will be a recurring theme throughout the show.
Eliza Doolittle will always be Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 musical film adaptation, My Fair Lady, and you can hear some of those Hepburn exclamations in Jenn Robinson’s delivery. Although those moments are intended to be larger than life, her focus on her accent and the cadence of her speech make her seem somewhat disconnected and a lot of the emotions feel like crocodile tears. Roger Stone brings the right level of energy to the role of Alfred Doolittle and the exchanges between Stone and Owen are verbally very pleasing. However, visually, the scenes between them, along with Allnutt, just don’t work. Far too often, Director, Pauline Griller-Mitchell, has the 3 men in a straight line facing the audience and the amount of unjustified movement within the blocking is quite staggering.
The costumes, by Harlene Leahy, are a strength throughout the show. The styles and color palette effectively representing the different classes of this period of British life; although dressing Mrs. Pearce (Sam David), the Scottish housekeeper, in tartan feels a little too obvious. Unfortunately every time David enters the stage there is an annoying hum seemingly linked to her microphone which, along with a moment of horrendous feedback for Owen that comes later, is hard to forgive.
As the lights fade we hear the lessons between Higgins and Eliza that adeptly signify the passing of time before the lights come up on Mrs. Higgins’ (Margaret Lane) drawing room. We meet the Eynsford-Hill family for the second time and Vernet, Schwartz and Mazzie make the most of their limited stage time – with the exchanges between Schwartz and Robinson in both the opening and closing scenes of the first act particularly enjoyable.
The second act has a set surprise up its’ sleeve as the central curtain is drawn to reveal a staircase from which Eliza enters. It gives the set a wonderful depth which sadly it then fails to utilize for any purpose for the remainder of the show. Robinson is a lot more comfortable as Eliza now she has transitioned into the better spoken version of herself and as the act progresses she starts to find the connection that was lacking earlier. Unfortunately it’s too late for us to be truly affected by her fate and her decision to leave Higgins is not close to the emotional peak that it should be.
The reappearance of Alfred Doolittle, with his new found wealth, should make for an entertaining final scene and there are some funny moments with Stone lamenting his change in circumstance and Owen sulking like a toddler in time out. However, what follows is more bizarre blocking and characters almost rotating every few minutes to take turns sitting at Mrs. Higgins’ desk in a kind of slow and tedious game of musical chairs.
The Town Hall is a challenging space. The set and costumes are of a high quality and the performance of Owen as Higgins is a highlight…but the sound issues and the inability to isolate the different locations in the lighting design really hurt the overall quality of the production. However, it is the lack of authenticity in the interactions between the characters, largely due to movement rather than delivery, which unfortunately makes it impossible to recommend this show.
#tothepoint Rating: 48/100
You can view a full breakdown of the points here.
Ticket Price: $22
Value Review: N/A
Please review our scoring section. Our unique value for money guide only applies to shows that score 50 out of 100 or higher. The The British Players production of Pygmalion continues Friday through Sunday at Kensington Town Hall until April 9th.