Awash with critical glory at Bath and on tour, Peter Hall’s revival of George Bernard Shaw’s seaside comedy of romantic errors finally sails into a West End that seems to be bobbing on a middlebrow tide at the moment. Not that Shaw’s ironic farce involving a dysfunctional late-Victorian family arriving at a fashionable watering hole in Devon and bumping into the father they thought had ditched them long ago isn’t without it’s stormy moments.
Indeed, the play’s main battle of the sexes theme, about how the thoroughly modern daughter of an unconventionally feminist mother finally comes to an emotional accommodation with a permanently broke dentist called Valentine, is still like a sharp intake of salty sea air, mainly because Shaw seems to take delight in always showing you the flip-side of every relationship, from the apparently heartless father changing his spots to the mother discovering that there is a price to pay for social independence.
It all ends at a carnivalesque ball where you never can tell who has become transformed behind the masks. That said, there’s no doubt about the sparkling performances in Hall’s typically cut-glass production, especially from Diana Quick as the progressive mother forced into a romantic u-turn, Nancy Carroll as the daughter taking a chance on love and Matthew Dunphy and Sinead Matthews as precocious twins with 20th-century attitude. As the aged hotel waiter whose wise words pilot everyone through choppy waters, Edward Fox totters on and off the set like an ancient English ruin, taking scene stealing to the level of grand larceny.
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from August 2005 and this production’s original run at the Theatre Royal Bath.
Oscar Wilde thought a cigarette the "perfect type of the perfect pleasure" – being exquisite and leaving one unsatisfied. The same could be said of You Never Can Tell, which former National Theatre director Richard Eyre has aptly described as “an excellent stab at writing a play about nothing at all.”
There seems little doubt that this production, directed by Peter Hall, will pack in the punters all the way to the West End - at least if the reaction of the capacity audience I joined is anything to go by. And few, I think, would take issue. Whatever arguments there may be about the merits of George Bernard Shaw, his play is superbly staged here, perfectly weighted, with a terrific cast headed by Diana Quick and Edward Fox.
The fatherless Clandon clan – mother (Quick), two daughters and son – arrive at a Devon resort after 18 years abroad. The play opens with a scream as the younger daughter has a tooth extracted at the hands of a local, impecunious, dentist (Ryan Kiggell). He's invited to lunch and brings along his landlord, who just happens to know the other members of the party.
Familiar Shavian themes emerge: English morality and mores debunked, a Nietzsche-inspired notion of the ‘Life Force’, and the Wodehousian motifs of the haplessness of the middle classes compared with those that serve them, and the greater haplessness of men in the face of women bent on wedlock.
Winningly, Shaw, the arch-polemicist, displays a shrewd sense that nothing dates more quickly than ‘radicals’ and their ideas. Mrs Clandon, once shocking on the subjects of marriage and the rights of women, finds her views now superseded and her daughters, whom she has sought to armour with logic against the attention of conventional suitors, defenceless. But in truth, the play, unlike its companion piece at Bath, Waiting for Godot, does not take its ideas very seriously, which serves it well.
Hall’s production, his second ‘stab’ at Shaw since he took up temporary residency in Bath three years ago, is pure spun sugar: insubstantial as candy floss but woven with immense skill. It’s curious that Shaw, feted in his day as a heavyweight intellectual and agent provocateur, should now be enjoyed chiefly for his ‘talent to amuse’. But, as the title confirms, “You never can tell.”
- Pete Wood