Review – You Never Can Tell: Excuses are hard to make for Shaw’s problematic play

The troubling aspects of Bernard Shaw’s dusty play are here hammered at with forced jollity – the result is not weightless fun

Abbey Theatre, Dublin


Where are we? Bernard Shaw's 1896 comedy suggests an English seaside resort, where a mother and her three children have just returned from a long self-imposed exile in Portugal. But the set for the Abbey's new production, by Liam Doona, tells us something else, turning the playing space into a fantasy island surrounded by an iridescent moat of azure blue water.

When we first meet Dolly (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman), one of two voluble twins, she seems to have washed ashore – like another shipwrecked arrival to Twelfth Night's Illyria. Director Conall Morrison seizes that connection and tries to usher the play – a Shavian battle of the sexes – somewhere more magical.


This is no easy task; the arguments of Shaw's plays (even "Plays Pleasant") are generally heavy-handed and never light-hearted. The plot of You Never Can Tell, moreover, turns on the humbling of an advocate of women's rights. It's timing could be better.

Eleanor Methven's Mrs Clandon has abandoned her abusive husband, changed her name, and published Twentieth Century Treatises. This is a progressive series of codes for equality that her twins are now overthrowing, in search of their patriarch (a cantankerous Irishman, nicely played by Eamon Morrissey), and which keep her rationalist daughter Gloria (Caoimhe O'Malley) cold yet susceptible to the romantic trickery of social-climbing dentist Valentine (Paul Reid). Staged in the wake of Waking The Feminists, an escape to Illyria doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

With social satire, you can argue that even both sides of an equality debate should be equally lampooned, and if that puts Shaw's feminism in doubt, he does laboriously expose Crampton's violent patriarch and Valentine's cynical chicanery in the "duel of sex". Still, if modern productions of Taming of the Shrew can distance themselves from its gender politics, it seems odd to play Shaw's for laughs. An unflagging Reid does well by recognising Valentine's shallowness and becomes almost admirably reprehensible. But to see O'Malley's thinner Gloria "brought down" and her wit shut down (intellect is a "masculine specialty" Valentine tells her), you wonder if the only delivery available is amplified exasperation and despair. Instead, her shame is played pretty straight: "I am one of those weak creatures born to be mastered . . . "

Morrison's solution is not to go for cooling irony, but to double down on forced jollity, which becomes grating over three hours. Conor Linehan's jaunty music, Ben Omerod's brash lights, Doona's saturated colour palette and the commedia references of Joan O'Clery's costumes insist that this is all weightless fun. But the only real buoyancy comes from Niall Buggy's commandingly absurd waiter William (nicknamed after Shakespeare). His halo of white hair makes him part-bard part-clown, with a belief in the status quo so devout that every deference rings out like a cannon blast ("Thank YOU, M'am!"). He gives us the title of the play (and its best line), when he explains his principle in life, "if you'll excuse me for having such a thing, sir". Shaw's play – dusty, wearing and problematic – is not excused so easily.

Until February 6th

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture