Tuesday 21 November 2017

Theatre: GBS strikes the right note of humour

Mischievous froth: From left, Caoimhe O'Malley, Eleanor Methven, James Murphy, and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in Shaw's 'You Never Can Tell'.
Mischievous froth: From left, Caoimhe O'Malley, Eleanor Methven, James Murphy, and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in Shaw's 'You Never Can Tell'.
Pat Nolan and Leslie Conroy in ‘Snake Eaters’

Emer O'Kelly

Romance is at the heart of Shaw's You Never Can Tell. Being Shaw, it is of course apparently complicated by "attitudes" - social, intellectual, and political. But the complexities are unravelled with remarkable ease to allow for a mischievously happy ending. And we don't have too far to look for a reason: Shaw was happy and, dare one say it, in love when he was writing You Never Can Tell in 1895. He had just met Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who would take charge of him and his career as well as his heart for the rest of their lives. An unconventional liaison, undoubtedly, but nobody could deny it was a happy one.

The play is one of the less-often performed comedies, perhaps because it denies audiences (and critics) the opportunity to carp that Shaw's humour is so laden with paradox and polemic as to weigh itself down … an anti-intellectual argument that in any case denies the ability of humour to be intelligent. But You Never Can Tell is pure mischievous froth, turning the feminist/suffragette debate (of which Shaw was such a passionate supporter) on its head, with even the inevitable on-stage Shavian debate on the nature of modern love between Valentine and Gloria emerging as a football match played with bubbles, to mix a metaphor.

And exuberance is the overall quality in Conall Morrison's new production for the Abbey, turning high summer in an English seaside resort into perfect Christmas fare in Liam Doona's bandstand set surrounded by a sparkling blue stream. The cast is a star-studded one, headed by a home visit from Niall Buggy as Walter, the worldly-wise, wickedly class-conscious waiter, in a performance so knowingly naughty that GBS might have written the role especially for him.

He is matched in comedy by Nick Dunning as the "moidhered" family friend/solicitor Finch McComas attempting to untangle the marital imbroglio, and Denis Conway as Mr Bohun, QC, monumental in his pompously bullying self-importance. Eleanor Methven and Eamonn Morrissey are the estranged Mr and Mrs Clandon/Crampton, and there are suitably high-comic performances as the irrepressible teenage twins Dolly and Philip from Genevieve Hulme-Beaman and James Murphy.

Paul Reid is master of gangling timing as the lovelorn Valentine, well matched to Caoimhe O'Malley's "new womanly" Gloria, who looks delightful, but has a rather shriekingly strangulated accent which sounds anything but natural (or for that matter upper middle-class, which it is presumably meant to be).

Joan O'Clery's costumes are a joyous symphony, and the production is lit by Ben Ormerod, while the dance sequences are moved by Muirne Bloomer. Liz Barker is responsible for the delightful scenic art.

You Never Can Tell was programmed as the Christmas offering at the Abbey long before the current controversy concerning feminism as a numbers game in theatre; some of those involved in that controversy could learn from the master: everything, including feminism, is helped by a sense of humour.

* * * * *

Trying to create rural Nebraska in the aftermath of America's Afghan War with an Irish cast on a tiny Irish stage is no easy task. But Stewart Roche's writing love affair with America at its most macho continues in his new play Snake Eaters at the New Theatre in Dublin.

You half expect Jack Kerouac to burst through the wallpaper with either a thumbs up or down; but for most of the play, thumbs are very definitely up.

Roche's dialogue is both crisp and laconic as he probes nightmare insecurity in Hillis, newly returned from Afghanistan after a tour of duty with the Marines and the inevitable haunting it leaves behind; girlfriend Ashley, rootless and self-doubting enough to allow herself to be a punchbag for her previous psychotic drug-dealing boyfriend; and old buddy Joey, a gentle book dealer with a greater propensity for smoking dope than selling books. The play ties them together into an explosively violent bundle with a great deal of credibility under Caroline FitzGerald's direction.

Unfortunately, the author proceeds to Hillis's idea of a solution to his self-created problems that is so daft, so dramatically untenable, and ultimately so New Age Mindfulness tacky that the whole thing falls apart.

But it is worth seeing for the excellent performances from Patrick O'Donnell as Hillis, Cillian Roche as Joey, Lesley Conroy as Ashley, Pat Nolan as a bewildered father, John Morton as the psychotic Austen and Niall Bruton as a fall-guy of breathtaking sainthood.

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