Garrick Theatre, London WC2
Opened 7 November, 2005

Edward Fox is, of course, a gentleman of old-fashioned manners, who insists on chewing every syllable thirty-two times before it leaves his mouth.  As such, he is perfectly suited to play the unflappable, insightful waiter who discreetly helps everything go right in Bernard Shaw’s 1899 family comedy.  Indeed, an extra vein of humour comes from Fox’s desultory attempts to broaden his vowels into prole-speak.

Free-thinking Mrs Clandon arrives from Madeira into an English seaside resort with her elder daughter (a feminist Mini-Me) and two precocious twins.  Quick as a flash, they trip over the father from whom they acrimoniously split 18 years earlier, and radical Gloria acquires a suitor in the form of penniless but wily dentist Valentine.  Cue two and a half diverting hours of reconciling various flavours of love.

Shaw can be an immense pain, when he wants either to show off his cleverness or simply to use his characters as mouthpieces for his own arguments.  Thankfully, there’s scarcely a whiff of either tactic here, just enjoyment at offering a dissenting “modern” view of different romantic and family ties.  It’s a palpable riposte to Wilde’s ...Earnest, but with acknowledgements too to Plautus and commedia dell’Arte.

Diana Quick is rather underused as Mrs Clandon, and Sinead Matthews and Matthew Dunphy as the twins scamper about vivaciously but enunciate as if English were a foreign tongue to them.  Michael Mears, an actor I sometimes find annoying, is here on top form as an Act Four arrival, an imperious QC who is coincidentally the waiter’s son.  But Fox ambles off with every scene. He can make “Cheese, sir?” sound witty.

This production was a highlight of this summer’s season in Bath by the Peter Hall Company. Hall is Shaw’s foremost champion among directors at the moment.  It looks and sounds like a period piece – Mrs Clandon writes books on “20th Century Manners” and so on, to sound cutting-edge in the late 19th century.  But, surprisingly, it doesn’t feel as dated as you expect: a little quaint, but still sharp and most enjoyable.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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