You Never Can Tell – Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Director: Conall Morrison
Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Reviewer: Liam Harrison


George Bernard Shaw’s 1896 playYou Never Can Tellfeels like it could not have been put on at a worst time at The Abbey. Embroiled as the theatre is in a storm around its attitude towards gender politics, the timing of Shaw’s outmoded and uneven play feels particularly out of joint.

The Abbey’s production is set to an uncannily blue background on an English seaside resort, complete with impressive water features and Chinese lanterns. The play portrays the shift from Victorian moral strictness to20th Centuryidealism. A young women’s rights activist called Gloria (Caoimhe O’Malley) brought up on science and rationalism, has her principals disrupted by the conniving young dentist Valentine (Paul Reid), through several farcical twists of a love story. Gloria and her siblings also unwittingly stumble upon their long lost father, prompting the drawn-out family politics, which raise issues of parental absence and abuse.

Despite the sense that no party on any side of the political debatesemergesfrom the play unscathed, there are lines that linger a little too awkwardly in the air, even when played for laughs – such as intellect being a ‘masculine specialty’. The odd ‘battle of the sexes’ that the play tries to conjure feels dated. There is also the obvious irony of women being constantly shushed down on the Abbey stage given recent ‘Waking the Feminist’ events.

The play also falls flat through each character’s sheer predictability. It can feel as if you already know the content of every mini-speech the moment it starts to be made (perhaps some more editing could have worked in thisthree-hourproduction?). The following two minutes in these speeches run on in predictable and undistinguished dialogue, which is overworked too neatly for each type-casted character.

There are occasional lines in this production that produce a genuine chord of laughter, usually when Wilde is most markedly channelled – “no man alive shall father me” Phil proudly claims. And it is the young siblings Phil and Dolly (James Murphy and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman) who possess the energy that occasionally disrupts the stasis the rest of the play falls into. Perhaps the reason they are the most engaging – as they act as Mad Hatters and March Hares – is because their grating qualities are the most deliberate.

You Never Can Tellfeels caught between the cutting social critique of a Chekhov play – there is a detached doctor making comments on the edge of the crowd – and the frivolity and wit of a Wilde play. Yet in trying to bridge the comedy and the social commentary the play falls flat on both accounts, and this production is no exception. The comedy tries to find an outlet in the absurd waiter Walter (Niall Buggy) – given the pet name William for his resemblance to the Bard. He laboriously stresses his civil politeness, elongating his bombastic ‘thank yous’, trying to bring light relief to the tense family politics. However, the initial joke becomes tired, and by the time he utters his maxim, the play’s title, his wit appears to have dried up.

Runs until 6 February 2016| Image: Ros Kavanagh


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