Shalom Life | June 18, 2015

Shaw Festival Review: You Never Can Tell

Shaw's You Never Can Tell is beautifully staged, entertaining, and thought-provoking; reminding us that many social issues that existed at the turn of the 20th century are still prevelant today.

By: Hermine Steinberg

Published: June 16th, 2015 in Culture » Stage » Reviews

The Shaw Festival has opened with the snap, crackle, and pop of one of Shaw’s earliest commercial successes, You Never Can Tell. In his preface to the play, he wrote “There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage.” And as in all his work, he certainly uses his story as a platform to ridicule traditional Victorian values and criticize the institution of marriage. Although Shaw brilliantly creates characters with equally valid yet diametrically opposing perspectives, which creates a highly entertaining battle of wits, the behaviour that would scandalize and challenge audiences at the turn of the twentieth century become less potent while the trivialization of such issues as domestic violence may give the audience pause. This over the top production of You Never Can Tell definitely dazzles and entertains, but may leave you wondering if Shaw really intended the sizzle to outshine the substance.

You Never Can Tell is set in 1896 at an English seaside resort where we meet a young dentist, Valentine, who is extracting a tooth form his very first patient, Dolly. She has just arrived with her family from Madeira where they have been living for the past 18 years. Soon we meet the rest of the Clandon clan – Mrs. Clandon, a writer of ‘progressive’ self-help books, the eldest sister, Gloria, who is following in her mother’s philosophical footsteps, and Dolly’s twin brother, Philip, who is a self-proclaimed expert in human behaviour. We learn that Mrs. Clandon escaped her abusive marriage and has raised her children with no knowledge of their father nor the circumstances under which she left. The children demand to know who their father is now that they are back in England but Mrs. Clandon refuses believing they are too innocent to know the truth. Their attentions are turned to Valentine who they learn does not have a shilling to his name and invite him to lunch. He is especially delighted as he has not had a proper meal in a long time and has promptly fallen in love with Gloria.

Through a twist of fate it turns out that Valentine’s grumpy landlord, Fergus Crampton, who has in turn been invited to join the luncheon, is the wealthy but bitter father. On the terrace of the resort hotel where the luncheon party is about to begin, Mrs. Clandon meets with her solicitor and old friend, Finch McComas, who has also been asked to lunch. Mrs. Clandon decides to have him tell her children who their father is and they soon realize that he is the same Mr. Crampton that will be arriving shortly. Thanks to the masterful manipulations and kindness of their waiter, Mr. Boon, everyone is able to sit down together to dine in somewhat of a civil fashion. The rest of the day and the rest of the play explore the relationships between children and parents, and between would be lovers who are all trying to figure out what will make them happy and what they are willing to sacrifice.

You Never Can Tell pits rationalism against emotion, men against women, and principles against self-interest. Through Shaw’s brilliant wit and complex characters, we are taken on a mad romp highlighting and mocking the hypocrisies of social class, marriage, and gender roles. Many of the questions raised are still relevant. However, one issue that is trivialized and almost buried under the banter is the issue of domestic violence. In fact, as the children gain sympathy for their long lost father, it seems almost insensitive how quickly they forget the circumstances that created the situation they find themselves. Although love and forgiveness are central themes, our current understanding of domestic violence may have us question the cavalier treatment of one of the central issues in this play, the very motive for this family breaking up and Mrs. Clandon’s strong determination to shield her children from knowing about their father. Of course, today we look at this issue very differently and consider it not only an abuse of power but a criminal act. 67% of all Canadians say they personally know at least one woman who has been sexually or physically assaulted.


The underlying optimism in this play, the hope that people can change and happy endings are possible despite our mistakes and weaknesses, do act as a deliberate counter balance to this dark theme and did make You Never Can Tell more commercially viable. It was Shaw himself who decided to create a bantering farce that deals with themes such as domestic violence, bigotry, and systemic oppression of women in his era. However, Jim Mezon’s over the top direction of You Never Can Tell may have at times reduced a witty satire into a funny sitcom. It also may be true that time may have not been entirely kind to the play itself.

In 1896 Shaw challenged and even shocked his audiences by creating characters that would have been considered outrageous. In his day, many people would have believed that a woman in a dentist chair without a chaperone present to be scandalous. It would be almost unheard of for an unmarried couple to share an on-stage kiss, and teenaged children publically mocking their parents would be considered shameful. Today this would not raise an eyebrow and therefore these aspects of the play which were calculated to provoke the audience have lost their impact. It seems that in order to make up for the loss of this scandalous punch to the story, more playfulness, dazzling sets, and exaggerated behaviour have been introduced to replace the sensation that would have been created by challenging the norms of the day.

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