A delightfully fluffy production of a secretly progressive comedy.
The Abbey Theatre
It is virtually impossible to review You Never Can Tell without referring to Waking the Feminists. Even though the decision to stage Shaw’s play was made long before spectacularly sloppy scheduling finally broke the patience of many frustrated by male dominance in Irish theatre, events have a habit of overtaking art. When that art is a comedy about a chance encounter between a thoroughly modern woman and her children with her estranged husband (with a story of young love and some choice observations on late 19th century gender relations on the side), you can understand why some reviewers have been unkind about this “dusty” production.
In the Irish Times, Peter Crawley describes the plot as the “humbling of an advocate of women’s rights”, and appears to lament its “forced jollity”. Other reviewers have treated the decision to stage a play where one character smugly spouts offensive sexism as though it were a riposte to the movement. However, taking the chauvinistic bluster of Valentine (Paul Reid) as a sincere expression of Shaw’s views is to either wilfully or naively misrepresent the play, and this production. Shaw was no more expressing his contempt for feminism through Valentine then he was renouncing his long commitment to socialism when the progressive veteran Mrs. Clandon (Eleanor Methven) shudders at the mention of the word. Are we to hold Oscar Wilde to account for the snobbery of Lady Bracknell? Should Pinter be run over the coals for the racism of certain characters in The Room?
The fact is that Valentine, a struggling dentist who isn’t as clever as he imagines, spouts smug and dated nonsense to reassure himself of his own control in wooing the thoroughly modern but apparently innocent Gloria (Caoimhe O’Malley). It was ridiculous when Shaw wrote it. It is proven ridiculous over the course of the play, and Valentine is proven thoroughly wrong in his analysis. This isn’t the humbling of an advocate of women’s rights – it’s the humbling of a sexist. Moreover, the sage advice of Walter the Waiter (Niall Buggy), urging Valentine not to equate male dominance with domestic happiness, are about as progressive and directly feminist as one can reasonable expect from a comedy written in 1896. Many men could do with hearing them in 2015.
So if it is not inherently offensive to play Shaw’s comedy for laughs, is this production actually funny? Yes, at least once the audience adjusts to a larger-than-life tone. If anything, Director Conall Morrison’s take on You Never Can Tell is louder, more boisterous and more consciously zany than most contemporary productions of Wilde’s comedies, to which it is often compared. For anyone raised on naturalistic or relatable comedy on stage and screen, it’s quite an adjustment. Fortunately, Genevieve Hulme-Beaman as Dolly – an intelligent and charmingly insufferable child whose antics shock uptight Britons – makes the transition easy. Hulme-Beaman sets the early tone by splashing playfully through the water feature on Liam Doona’s beautiful, dreamlike set, and plays Dolly with gay abandon, ably supported by James Murphy as her elder brother Philip. Together, the pair inject a delightful anarchy into every scene. By the time we encounter Walter the Waiter, the rules of this game are well established. Buggy’s stylised performance, in this context, doesn’t feel incongruous at all, which is saying something. A mention should also go to Denis Conway’s brief-but-sparkling appearance as the barrister Bohun, which kicks the final Act into life. The other characters are sane only to a point, and the cast overall manage to combine bubbling lunacy with buttoned-up shock at this madcap foursome. In truth, the only performance that failed to impress was Eamon Morissey’s as the estranged husband, Mr Crampton: his is a delicate balancing act, and he looked really quite awkward in Act 1, only to improve after the interval.
Faced with a production like this, it’s helpful to remember that lasting progress is not often accomplished by earnest exposition, or indeed screaming at people holding outdated views. Like Wilde, Shaw’s play satirises those views – and invited people who held them in on the joke. In doing so, it probably changed more potentially open minds than more radical or po-faced pieces. It may not have inspired revolution in anyone’s soul – and neither will this deliberately, delightfully fluffy production – but has aged far better than many more overtly progressive works.