To begin its 2015 season, the Shaw Festival presented the seventh incarnation of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell in Niagara-on the-Lake.
With director Jim Mezon calling the shots, there was a virtual guarantee that inventiveness both around and within the typically wordy script would be very much in evidence (the opening film sequence leading to a purposely one-note-short rendition of “Rule Britannia” on kazoo fulfilled that promise right from the git-go; the “floundering” yuk hit its mark but following that bit of frothy business, the visual interventions became more routine than “Who would ever have thought of that?”).
Billed as a comedy, the play serves more as a confessional for the playwright’s experiences with lust, love and marriage than situational belly laughs as the principals discover each other’s past history, present-day mores and family secrets. The farther removed audiences are from 1896 (when communication of all sorts was light years away from today’s instantaneous pronouncements—good, bad and decidedly ugly—via so-called social media, increasingly becoming more like a digital mob), the less punch or punchline possibilities found their targets.
The link to everything is Peter Millard’s first-drawer performance as the long-suffering waiter, William (actually, Walter, as just one of the Mozart comic opera-like, similar-sounding names adding to the intended mayhem). Representing the serving class, the character frequently outshines his betters and has a more rounded philosophy of life, sputtering only slightly when his largely absent but highly successful son (a QC, don’t you know—Jeff Meadows nails the part of Bohun, decked out with eyebrows that define the adjective flare and whose “matches” speech has just the right tone of worldly haughtiness and resignation) appears in the last act to mediate a family squabble for the ages.
The main love interest (with equal amounts of modern disinterest when enlightenment trumps passion) is served up with competence and a quiet charm by Gray Powell as the aptly named Valentine— the five-schilling dentist—alongside Julia Course who plays Gloria Clandon. The latter’s expertly coiffed locks, severe outfits and horn-rimmed glasses artfully combine to build a façade of cool that masks the heartbreaker lurking beneath.
At the other end of the relationship scale is Gloria’s mother, Mrs Lanfrey Clandon. Tara Rosling has great fun portraying She Who Must Be Obeyed (having left her husband to raise the children on her own 18 years ago), either with her verbal entreaties, or reaching a much wider audience through her Madeira-written tomes, Twentieth Century Treatises, with volumes on cooking, creeds, clothing, conduct, children and parents. Isolated from the larger world, she has managed to solve its dilemmas for one and all. Still married but decidedly without privileges is Fergus Crampton, who in one of several unabashedly brazen coincidences is also Valentine’s landlord (the close-but-no-cigar surnames of the estranged husband and wife being still another example of the fairer sex doing what they please). Patrick McManus fires on all blustery cylinders as he is more or less forced to reunite with his wife and progeny. (Peter Krantz is also in fine form bringing the family solicitor, Finch M’Comas, to bellowing life.)
Rounding out the principals are the delightfully colour-blind twins whose zest for life belies the outward severity of their older sister and mother. Jennifer Dzialoszynski positively bubbles and burbles as Dolly (yet the “modern woman’s” desire for a cigarette rings falser with every passing no-smoking year) while Stephen Jackman-Torkoff—perhaps a tad heavy on the foppish side—sets up and plays off the rest of the cast with energy and ease. What fun that designer Leslie Frankish (whose raked, chess board set simultaneously underscores the game afoot and displays it for all to see) has come up with costumes that join the precocious kids at fashion’s hip; the fancy ball masks are hilarious, speaking silent volumes about the personas behind them.
By journey’s end, the troupe—perhaps exhausted by the heavy doses of discourse that Shaw revels in—literally dances off the stage leaving Valentine and William (OK, Walter!) to contemplate choices past and future knowing now, without a doubt, that you never can tell what’s in store. JWR