George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, written 1896, has a curiously modern storyline; you could easily imagine a Fathers4Justice Batman figure swooping down on the scene as the three children of the formidable Mrs Lanfrey Clandon start to lay claim to the father whose very existence has previously been unmentionable.
In almost two decades of exile she has raised her children to sturdy independence, according to the principles of “20th-century child-rearing” she’s set out in her books. But now back in England, they collide with the old traditions and the tactics the unscrupulous have developed to deal with the “New Woman”.
Peter Hall’s revival at the Garrick (London)- moving from Bath – is emphatically Traditional Theatre. The sets are elaborate, as are the costumes, and lines are delivered not to the other characters, but clearly to the audience, the often ponderous wit sounded out syllable by syllable for effect. The storyline might be entirely modern – progressive woman clashes with regressive, repressive males – but nothing else is.
Yet even in these traditional terms there are problems. Is this a drawing room farce moved to the seaside, or a romantic drama? Neither Shaw nor Hall seems to have been able to decide.
Diana Quick holds the stage as the formidable Mrs Clandon and starts, to my eyes anyway, as a decent, solid figure, easily imagined at a suffragette demonstration – her place in world carved out by her own determined efforts. Yet she becomes a figure of comic uncertainty, as does her daughter Gloria, well played by Nancy Carroll. That the latter should see her life turned around, not by the foppish, entirely comic figure of the hopelessly frivolous dentist, but by lurve, makes little sense, albeit that it is good for plenty of laughs.
Perhaps where this production becomes most unbalanced, however, is in the casting. There’s little impression from the supposedly violent, but now reformed father of the piece – his switches between anger and repentance wholly wooden.
The senior male side is entirely carried by Edward Fox, as the waiter who proves the solid good sense of the working class amidst all the middle-class fluttering. Yet the wise retainer is hardly a role to stretch a master, and Fox seems to retain one facial impression, and stance, throughout – his sheer personal charism turning his way an audience made up largely of fans of his own generation.
There’s plenty of entertainment here and, particularly in the second half, when the pace picks up, plenty of laughs. But it is a classy form of fairy floss – pleasant, tasty, but sadly forgetable. And if you think about what’s actually going on, behind the laughs, there’s a sour, misogynist taste at the core of the sugar.