In George Bernard Shaw’s classic play, which inspired the immortal musical My Fair Lady, gorblimey flower seller Eliza Doolittle is plucked from the streets of Covent Garden and transformed into the illusion of a woman of substance by phonetics expert Henry Higgins.
Shaw’s take on the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea might seem outdated in an age that has embraced regional accents but its interrogation of class and gender disparity remains persuasive.
Eliza (Patsy Ferran) is tutored by Higgins (Bertie Carvel) to speak in Received Pronunciation and has lessons in social etiquette with Colonel Pickering (Michael Gould), as a result of a bet between the two men.
Director Richard Jones’ production is oddly designed. The costumes and sets suggest that it has somehow drifted from 1913 into the Roaring Twenties. And the pace is farce and furious.
Carvel, whose previous roles have included Miss Trunchbull in Matilda and President Trump in The 47th, plays Higgins like a cross between an overexcited child and a manic maiden aunt.
His tongue seems constantly to be trying to escape from his mouth, a behavioural tic as repellent as it is disconcerting.
Ferran starts as a trad Eliza, squawking, “I’m a good girl, I am,” to distinguish herself from the streetwalkers in her vicinity, before transitioning to an elegant young woman with unlikely speed.
There are a handful of smart and funny set pieces, notably a tea party at the house of Higgins’ mother, played with quiet assurance by Sylvestra Le Touzel. But the torrential pace gives us scant time to engage with the characters or care what happens to them.
Like Henry Higgins himself – the Baron Frankenstein of social engineering – it is smart, blinkered and heartless.
Pygmalion, The Old Vic, London, until October 28 Tickets: 0344 871 7628