The cast of You Never Can Tell - Photo by David Cooper
Pass the nitrous oxide...
Shaw has opened its 54th season with the 1897 comedy, You Never Can Tell, its seventh production in Festival history. Directed by veteran Jim Mezon, it begins tellingly in a dentist's seaside office with Gray Powell (Valentine) pulling his first commercial tooth. For an extra five shillings, he employs gas on Patrick McManus (Fergus Crampton). Then, alas, the gas is turned on us, the audience.
After 18 years in Madeira, the Clandons - Tara Rosling (Mrs. Clandon), and her adult children, bizarre twins, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff (Philip Clandon) and Jennifer Dzialoszynski (Dolly Clandon) along with sallow-faced Julia Course (Gloria Clandon) return to England, holidaying serendipitously at the same seaside, wonderfully designed by Leslie Frankish, replete with nifty props.
Rosling is author of progressive parenting pamphlets, yet neglects to tell her three children who their father is. McManus (the father), a gruff, bad-tempered landlord, is unwittingly invited by the clan to dine with the family, having encountered him at his tenant's (Valentine) office along with Powell (the dentist), who is immediately love-struck with Course. Yes, we anticipate the ensuing farcical entanglements, but it's all so very silly for Shaw, with few laughs registered until the end.
Walter, a waiter (Peter Millard), orchestrates the action and acts as a one-man Greek chorus, repeating the play's title ad nauseum. He plays "Rule Britannia" on a kazoo at the beginning to set the stage for the collision between the Clandons and British Victorian mores. His own estranged son, Bohun (Jeff Meadows), dressed like a swami replete with a turban, helps forge a welcome finale. Peter Krantz's (Finch M'Comas) talents are wasted as a bellowing, befuddled lawyer who also assists with the conclusion.
Throughout the play, Jackman-Torkoff and Dzialoszynski, the free-spirited twins, prance and dance and dominate the action, but one soon tires of their pranks.
I suppose the play might springboard some debate about marriage, divorce, feminism, male and female roles, but it never verges on any kind of serious platform for an honest examination.
Director Jim Mezon, in his notes (below) suggest that it's all about acceptance but this is a difficult play to approve. Nitrous oxide has been used for anesthesia in dentistry since 1844. Shaw's application in this play simply did not work for me. I kept thinking during the first two acts - gees, so much wasted talent up there on the Royal George stage. Why this play? Why indeed? I know a few of Shaw's plays must be featured, but please, lay this one to rest.
Congratulations to Leslie Frankish, set and costume designer, Kimberly Purtell, lighting designer and Cameron Davis, projections designer who make this a stylish production.
By Jim Mezon
Four months before beginning You Never Can Tell, Shaw reviewed The Importance of Being Earnest for The Saturday Review. Although he always admired Wilde's wit and Earnest amused him, he wrote, "unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening."
What has surprised me most about working on Shaw's "West End comedy" is the heartbreak at the core of it. Some of the characters have their hearts broken because of the past, some by their lost youth, some by love, and some by their children. Even our youthful twins, who
seem impervious to heartbreak, suffer the loss of their illusions.
To me this play is about acceptance. All of his characters must learn to accept what they neither sympathize with nor understand. To that end, Shaw places them at the seaside, by the ever-changing sea where acceptance is a must. Our guide will be a rather remarkable waiter and his apprentices, a set of alien twins washed up on this foreign shore.
Those who have adopted a mask or a role in life, or those who are steeped in habits, convention or illusions, will find themselves challenged in their life views. And as surely as spring shall follow winter and Jack shall have his Jill, all will be well as long as each generation forgets its tragedies in the happiness of its children.
All's well that ends well; Let life come to you; You never can tell - they all speak of acceptance, of taking life as it is not as it ought to be. Acceptance.
You Never Can Tell runs at the Royal George Theatre to Oct. 25. Visit
shawfest.com for tickets and times.
Photos by David and Emily Cooper
Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, Canada - home to the "Shaw Festival"