You Never Can Tell by George Bernard Shaw

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You Never Can Tell by George Bernard Shaw (2013).  Dir. Martin Jarvis.  Perf. Ian Ogilvy, Jamie Bamber, Rosalind Ayres.  BBC Radio 3, 1 Feb. 2015.  BBCiPlayer to 3 Feb. 2015


The basic plot of Bernard Shaw’s 1897 comedy is a hackneyed one, involving the unexpected discovery by Dolly and Philip Clandon (Moira Quirk, Matthew Wolf), that the curmudgeonly yacht-builder Crampton (Christopher Neame) is their long-lost father.  Multiple complications ensue from this event, but all ends happily, even though some of the characters emerge none the wiser as a result.


Sometimes Shaw’s verbal facility gets the better of him, especially in the long romantic exchanges between Gloria Clandon (Sophie Winkleman) and her would-be lover Valentine (Jamie Bamber).  In general, however, the overall tone of Martin Jarvis’s production remained lighthearted, especially at the beginning, when Valentine found it difficult to get a word in edgeways as Dolly and Philip kept talking and talking.  The dialogue fairly sped along like an intense tennis rally, with the actors seldom pausing for breath.  We got the sense that if Dolly and Philip stopped talking for a moment, they might realize how empty their lives actually were.  Yet this was not entirely their own fault, but chiefly due to their mother’s (Rosalind Ayres’s) reluctance to tell them anything about their origins.  Despite her attempts at self-justification, we became aware of Shaw’s satiric purpose, as he showed a so-called “liberal” writer not practicing what she preached.  Free thinking was perfectly justified, so long as she did not have to be involved.


The power of words to obfuscate rather than communicate lay at the heart of this revival.  Dolly and Philip never meant what they said; being only nineteen years old, they claimed that they had not yet learned how to converse properly.  Valentine made it perfectly clear that the language he used to seduce Gloria had been used several times previously with other women; every single word he uttered was a cliché.  Even the elderly waiter William (Ian Ogilvy) was content to live a life of falsehood; his real name was Walter, but as the guests preferred to give him a more commonplace soubriquet, he was more than happy to stick with it.


The only real words of truth Walter uttered were the four comprising the play’s title: “You Never Can Tell.”  Director Jarvis made it clear that they remained perpetually subject to Fate, despite their attempts to control one another verbally.  The only way they could cope with life was to accept their destiny and try to get on with it.  Walter/William understood this, when his son Boon QC (Julian Holloway) reappeared unexpectedly to threaten the servant’s comfortable position at the hotel.


In many ways You Never Can Tell is a bit of a comic puzzle, as Shaw ridicules many of the socialist beliefs that lay at the heart of his oeuvre.  The plot only becomes comprehensible if we understand it in terms of human powerlessness. 


The action unfolded at a rapid pace, with the cast thoroughly enjoying Shaw’s witty dialogue, which sometimes became almost Wildean in its sophistication.