The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings





Etcetera and
Short Term Listings



LA/San Diego






Free Updates
Writing for us
A CurtainUp London London Review
You Never Can Tell

Women must shed the false manners of their slavery before they can show the true manners of their freedom.
---- Mrs Clandon
You Never Can Tell
Diana Quick as Mrs Clandon and Nancy Carroll as Gloria
(Photo: Nobby Clark)
It's 1896 and progressive author Mrs Clandon (Diana Quick) returns home after eighteen years' self-imposed exile, having fled the narrow conformity of high Victorian England. Now her children have grown up, their future must be attended to in the home country. For daughters Gloria (Nancy Carroll) and Dolly (Sinéad Matthews) this, of course, means marriage -- Mrs Clandon isn't that progressive -- whereas for son Phil (Matthew Dunphy), well, he's going to take his time and extend his knowledge of human nature. One of those, but a nice lad. They're all nice. But is nice enough?

No, and soon trouble is brewing. Reared on advanced principles, the two younger people immediately make waves in the parlours of this stuffy sleepy seaside town. They are too brightly-dressed, too cheerful and too cheeky to pass for respectable English. Older sister Gloria will stand no nonsense from young bachelors, an equally deplorable trait. The young Clandons walk bare-foot on the beach. They drink lager. Dolly even smokes. These failings might be forgiven, they are told by dentist Valentine (Ryan Kiggell), but what cannot is the absence of a father. Without a paterfamilias to their name they are doomed to be social pariahs. Mrs Clandon herself is darkly secretive about her husband. So why did they split up and… who is he?

Well, when you realise that her ex, Mr Crampton (Ken Bones), not only lives in this very same town, but has accidentally been invited to dinner some twenty minutes into the play, you might feel that Shaw is straining coincidence a little too far. One of the family says as much. However contrived, the surprise meeting between the violent, narrow-minded father and his free-spirited offspring has much dramatic potential. Sadly Shaw, though a master dramatist doesn't quite seem to know what to make of his material. This comprises a number of strong themes: divorce, domestic violence, adultery, bigotry, and the tyranny of patriarchy. But Shaw eschews a darker treatment in favour of bantering farce, as if Noel Coward had re-written Ibsen, and so the play chugs along amiably without ever quite taking off.

Presumably You Never Can Tell has been revived as a vehicle for the much-admired stars Diana Quick and Edward Fox (William the waiter). But sadly these two have too little to do, although they do it very well: Mrs Clandon's work has been done before the play starts and she recedes into the background for most of the action. William drily comments on, as well as discreetly fixing, some of what follows and may have helped inspire P G Wodehouse's Jeeves. Most of the work is done by the rest of the cast and they do it superbly, as you should expect from a Peter Hall production. Ryan Kiggell excels as the candidly calculating Valentine who expertly conquers Gloria only to find that he is her captive. Sinéad Matthews is delightful as Dolly, deploying a sensuous throaty throb worthy of Joan Greenwood in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Michael Mears's brilliant barrister Bohun steals his scene, as he is meant to.

While You Never Can Tell fizzes and pops in places and there are a few good lines, there are more dull ones and slack patches, particularly the dinner scene where the food serving business is mildly distracting. While acting of this calibre is always worth seeing, time has not been kind to the play itself, which has lost much of the shock value it must have enjoyed in 1896. A woman in a dentist's chair without a chaperone present (though fans of Seinfeld know what this can lead to); a barefoot woman carrying her stockings; an on-stage kiss between an unmarried couple; the son of a waiter ordering the affairs of his social superiors; adolescents openly mocking their father; a family row in front of the staff: these do not scandalise us. However, what did shock me -- though perhaps Shaw wouldn't have expected it to - was the sight of the servant treating his son, whose abilities have raised him to the rank of gentleman, as he would any other social superior, bowing to him and calling him "sir", a deference casually accepted and enjoyed by the ungrateful skunk. But then he is a lawyer . . . .

Editor's Note: For links to more about Shaw and plays by him reviewed at CurtainUp (including two other productions of You Never Can Tell), see our Shaw Backgrounder.

Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Peter Hall

Starring: Diana Quick, Edward Fox
With: Ken Bones, Nancy Carroll, William Chubb, Matthew Dunphy, Madeleine Hitchins, Ryan Kiggell, Sinéad Matthews, Michael Mears
Design: Kevin Rigdon
Lighting: Paul Mumford
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Running time: Two hours forty minutes with one interval
A Theatre Royal Bath Production
Box Office: 0870 890 1104
Booking 11th March 2006
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 7th November 2005 at the GarrickTheatre, Charing Cross Road London WC2 (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
London Theatre Walks

Peter Ackroyd's  History of London: The Biography

London Sketchbook

tales from shakespeare
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.
Our Review

©Copyright 2005, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from