Minerva Studio / Festival Theatre, Chichester
Opened 19 July, 2010
*** / ***

Artistic director Jonathan Church follows his puckish double-bill about theatre critics in the Minerva by programming a diptych spread across both Chichester spaces. In the main house, Bernard Shaw’s most popular play Pygmalion offers a view of Edwardian class differences which, although barbed, has become cuddly through familiarity; the Minerva contrasts this with Howard Brenton’s new adaptation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell’s iconic novel of working-class oppression and determination. Unfortunately, neither production takes wing either as entertainment or propaganda.

Tressell’s novel (published posthumously in 1914) still inspires many towards socialism with its portrayal of building and decorating workers exploited by their bosses and a venal municipal council, yet one or two of whom remain committed to evangelising a less iniquitous order of things. The chapter in which principal protagonist Frank Owen teaches his fellows about “the Great Money Trick” (a.k.a. the Marxist theory of surplus value) still shines, but it is one of the few dramatically bright spots in Brenton’s adaptation.

The problem is not a historical one: socialism has either fallen out of fashion or been discredited, depending on one’s viewpoint, but the principal drawback here is that we are simply not compelled by the story. The privations of the workers seem stale, the depredations of the bosses comparatively trivial a century on. There are some fine performances: Finbar Lynch’s Owen is quietly resolute, and Nicolas Tennant deploys his trademark combination of brash charm and shiftiness as the foreman. But a production which may have resonated in its earlier run at co-producer the Everyman in the post-industrial city of Liverpool feels altogether less vibrant in more well-heeled West Sussex.

Philip Prowse’s production of Pygmalion, on the other hand, is all effect and little substance. Honeysuckle Weeks has put a great deal of work into her voice as flower-girl-turned-“duchess” Eliza Doolittle, both her original “Lisson Grove lingo” and her later too-artificial elocution (which sounds like one of the early BBC Radio test broadcasts), and even into her vocal timbre, to which she adds a slight rasp in the early scenes; however, Prowse should have put some corresponding effort into ensuring that she is intelligible in the Festival Theatre’s space. Eliza spends much of the first act either facing away from us or with her head turned down, and most of her lines reached my seat in Row H as undifferentiated squawks.

As Professor Henry Higgins, Rupert Everett sports a well-trimmed beard that is positively timid by Edwardian standards and inexplicably overdone Expressionist eye make-up. His is a comparatively one-note delivery, and he seldom seems to look anyone else in the eye; it is as if Everett is still mentally trying to get a fix on his performance. Peter Eyre is a soothing Colonel Pickering, and Stephanie Cole perfect as Higgins’ despairing mother. However, the production seems simply to be going through the motions... and not even Shaw’s motions, as Prowse sees fit to add a final scene of his own which over-simplifies the ending as written.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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