The week in theatre: Pygmalion; King Stakh’s Wild Hunt; It’s Headed Straight Towards Us – review

Eliza Doolittle rushes about on the steps of a Covent Garden church in the pouring rain: she has a wily look as she brandishes the flowers she is selling under the noses of sheltering bystanders. Her plimsoles are sodden and her little black hat has artificial violets round its brim; she is a nobody driven by darting, cartoon energy in Patsy Ferran’s brilliant embodiment of her. It matters to Eliza to be seen as “respectable” – almost as if she were anticipating becoming a somebody. From the start, director Richard Jones’s tremendous remastering of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1912) is subtly spot on (even if the musical version, My Fair Lady, hobbles the play somewhat – you miss the singing). Ferran goes at the part full glottal stop as she collides with her future in the form of Henry Higgins, waiting for the rain to let up.

Bertie Carvel is phenomenal – a more persuasive, acute and entertaining Henry Higgins never exercised his vocal cords. He uncovers the defective complexity of the phonetics professor who decides, for a bet, to turn a flower girl into a duchess by teaching her the King’s English. His smile is gleaming, persistent and unhinged. He is socially gauche and unempathic (an irony, given that he is supposed to be teaching Eliza how to behave in society). He seems unable to think beyond his academic subject – and Carvel exploits this to hilarious effect. He wears a maroon jumper and brown trousers (he has no dress sense). He waggles his tongue like a gleeful reptile and speaks as if each sound were delectable ice-cream. He is not as interested in class as he is in the variety of accents and what they do. There is an unforgettable scene in which he manically lectures us on vowel sounds. At other moments he evinces a snobbish ecstasy, letting us know a Kentish Town accent is no basis for a successful future. There are bullying hints here of the other pedagogue that made Carvel’s name – Miss Trunchbull from Matilda.

This production reminds us of the brilliance of Shaw’s writing – fresh moments that give pause for thought

Stewart Laing’s canny set is, suitably, like the backdrop to an experiment – on graph paper, although he can organise a dainty tea party too. There is a first-rate supporting cast: Sylvestra Le Touzel as Mrs Higgins has comically dismissive timing as she despairs of her son (like all the women in the play, she is on Eliza’s side). Penny Layden brings crisp Scottish morality to Mrs Pearce, the housekeeper. John Marquez’s Alfred Doolittle is a dapper, likable rascal and Michael Gould as Colonel Pickering is nicely cast as a pinstripe duffer. The production gives rise to the idea that Eliza and Higgins are two of a kind, separated by class: clever, restive, chocolate-fancying loners. Ferran’s Eliza is avid for the genteel but flounders before acquiring the moves. She bites, in the earlier stages of her apprenticeship, the sleeves of her kimono and nods wordlessly to urge Mrs Higgins to add yet another sugar lump to her tea in a hilarious, necessarily tongue-tied exchange.

Ferran is at her most formidable in the second half, reconstituted as a subdued sylph in a classical gown – as if to demonstrate that the shift into the upper class involves embracing lifelessness (moving too much is vulgar). Shaw’s play holds its own, and although a period piece (the Kentish Town accent no longer a hazard), the questions it raises about judging others remain relevant. And this production reminds us of the brilliance of Shaw’s writing – fresh moments that give pause for thought such as when Higgins says: “Do any of us understand what we are doing? If we did, would we ever do it?”

King Stakh’s Wild Hunt by Belarus Free Theatre (who brought Dogs of Europe to the same stage at the Barbican last year) is directed by Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin and is based on a Belarusian novel by Uladzimir Karatkievich, itself inspired by an east European folk story about freeing an heiress from an evil curse. An ambitious hybrid – opera, play, multimedia show – it’s an awe-inspiring allegory without allegory’s consoling distance – a fairytale into which the living anguish of Ukraine and Belarus has been poured; a journey with no end in sight. The stagecraft is dazzlingly varied (set by Khalezin and Nadya Sayapina, video design by Dmytro Guk) and it is performed by Belarusians and Ukranians, some of whom have flats in Kyiv that were shelled before the show in London opened.

Tamara Kalinkina in King Stakh’s Wild Hunt by Belarus Free Theatre at the Barbican theatre.
Soprano Tamara Kalinkina in King Stakh’s Wild Hunt: ‘an awe-inspiring allegory without allegory’s consoling distance’. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

It begins with house lights up and darkness on stage. A wind is blowing and a group in black stand rooted, their upper bodies pushed by the wind, their movements not quite human. Orange smoke billows behind them: an unexplained apocalypse that launches a narrative of disorienting beauty and pain, an exploration of what it means for a human being to be prey. Belarusian composer Olga Podgaiskaya’s yearning score recalls Janáček and her predatory rhythms Philip Glass. Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko plays the lead and seems, through his magnificent voice alone, to overpower the vertigo of the forest. Soprano Tamara Kalinkina sings with elegiac power. And an interval can never have been more of a performance: three women flying, blue wings unfurling – gift-wrapped angels. Bondarenko’s hero declares: “Belarus is alive as long as the language breathes in songs… ” But as we watch, the vision keeps cracking under pressure, overflowing its confines, as if story itself were an endangered species.

It’s Headed Straight Towards Us is structured like a joke: did you hear the one about two old thespians holed up in a trailer, making a film next to an Icelandic volcano? They were at drama school together, their rivalry lifelong. Samuel West is deliciously vain as Hugh, the actor who has made a career playing butlers. Rufus Hound is comically alarming as Gary, a drunken amnesiac for whom the big time has shrunk to nothing. He appears, in costume, as a “Thermidon”, a crustacean colossus with blood-orange scales and one line. Leela, the film’s PA, is nicely played by a plausibly stressed Nenda Neururer. Director Rachel Kavanaugh has fun with the action – and inaction. Insecurity rules. And while there are too many in-house (or in-trailer) gags, the play’s authors, Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer of 80s sitcom The Young Ones, run with their theme of late-life crisis and the tragicomedy of being a performer. You suspect that what you are learning about these old hams is just the tip of the iceberg.

Star ratings, out of five
Pygmalion ★★★★★
King Stakh’s Wild Hunt ★★★★★
It’s Headed Straight Towards Us ★★★