March 7, 2006: Shaw, You Never Can Tell

Garrick Theatre. Directed by Peter Hall. Starring Edward Fox OBE (so distinguished in the program)

This, the last of Shaw’s “Pleasant” plays, offers wonderful entertainment. Something of a take-off on The Importance of Being Earnest, it features an exhort­ation to discover an absent father and an interview seen between an aspiring husband and a demanding mother. But the play is only as Wildean as its common farcical roots would make it and is, in fact, quintessentially Shavian. The program note calls attention to the play’s connections to the kind of Plautine comedy of lost fathers and wives and mothers that Shakespeare built The Comedy of Errors upon; but closer to the center of the play is the character of the wise old man, the Waiter, one of the early avatars of Shaw’s notion of the life force, whose vitality is indomitable and whose practical, paternal advice serves to bring the play to its happy ending.

One of the most pleasurable aspects of the play is that the Waiter’s son, now a successful Q.C. (Queen’s Counselor, for readers who have no idea what a Q.C. is), and a master of piercing to the heart of a knotty legal problem, is brought in, in Act IV, to sort out the difficulties of Mrs Clandon, her daughter Gloria, her twin offspring Dolly and Phil, and her long-absent husband Mr Cramp­ton, who happens to be the landlord of Valentine, an aspiring young dentist who falls in love with Gloria. “You think that’s what you want, but you don’t,” Q.C. Bohun (pron. “Boon”) insists to one and then another of the comic­ally troubled family, with the remarkable insight and assertiveness that has advanced him so far in his chosen profession. One can see Shaw’s program of eugenic advancement of superior exemplars of the race implicit in this father-and-son team, but Shaw is out to be pleasant, here, rather than prescriptive.

Peter Hall’s direction is crisp and effective. The running time of the play, 2 hrs. 45 mins., is a bit surprising, once one looks at one’s watch, because it all goes off “like a pistol shot,” as Wilde said that the production of Earnest should do. A momentary contretemps, in Act IV, when the Waiter managed to break a glass in the process of handing out drinks to the assembled company, only briefly slowed the pace.

This was a production originating at the Theatre Royal Bath, one of a series of productions from there that have gone on to tour widely. This West End jaunt, which closes this weekend, is on its way somewhere else. Meanwhile, Sir Peter’s new production of Earnest, with Lynn Redgrave as Lady Bracknell, will arrive at the Brooklyn (New York) Academy of Music sometime in April. In that connec­tion, I was contacted by the BAM dramaturg around Christmas time and asked to come up with three or five questions to ask Peter Hall in an interview that would then be published as part of BAM’s publicity for the production; which I did. I look for­ward to reading the transcript of the interview, and I have been promised tickets for the production.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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