When it comes to the play on which ‘My Fair Lady’ was based, it’s all too easy to find yourself thinking, ‘All I want is a tune somewhere.’ Director Philip Prowse does oblige, startlingly, with ‘Ride of the Valkyries’: Wagner’s swooping music announces the opening Covent Garden scene with pomp and inky flair; it sets the key for this polished-up, expensively cast, sumptuously Edwardian production.
Prowse’s ‘Pygmalion’ transfers from Chichester, and, in the year since it opened there, Rupert Everett’s devilish Professor Higgins has acquired a new mother (Diana Rigg, a splendidly complete explanation for his flamboyant Oedipus complex).
He’s also found a new flower girl who has more than a touch of the Valkyries about her. ‘EastEnders’ and ‘Strictly’ champ Kara Tointon is a bloomin’ luvverly Eliza Doolittle. From the moment she appears, touting violets and torturing innocent vowels on the doorstep of the Covent Garden Opera House, she shows a feisty independence and physical poise that’s more than a match for the eloquent sarcasm with which Higgins terrifies fashionable society. She gives a textbook Eliza (Everett’s dark, charming, uncosy Higgins is less well rounded, but is a bolder and more interesting departure from cliché).
Their final debate, in which his elegant creation dumps her Dr Frankenstein for the trivial embrace of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, is morally and intellectually gripping. But there would be more at stake if their chemistry were stronger.
Everett’s unconventional Higgins and Peter Eyre’s gentle, humanising Colonel Pickering are a better-matched pair: jawing in Higgins’s book-lined study like the Holmes and Watson of phonetics.
But the production closes with an ill-advised bang, as Everett’s Higgins, hunched like a grinning Mephistopheles, makes a fully staged fantasy of Eliza’s wedding disappear with a flick of his wrist.
It’s a handsome evening whose hidden shallows wouldn’t matter if Prowse had only staged ‘My Fair Lady’ instead...