THEATRE / Bernard Shaw, bound and gagged: Paul Taylor on the transfer of Valentine's Day, Benny Green and David William's Shavian musical

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The Independent Culture
CRITICS have been kicked in the crystal balls over this one. When Valentine's Day - a musical adaptation by Denis King, Benny Green and David William of Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell - opened at Chichester last year, there were confident predictions that here was a piece that would never reach the West End. Ignominious jump-cut to the Globe, Shaftesbury Avenue where, in Gillian Lynne's production, the show is now providing London audiences with an evening of virtually non-stop insipidity enlivened only by the odd spasm of acute embarrassment.

A fair number of the latter are occasioned by Edward Petherbridge's William, the scene-stealing elderly waiter who presides, with perfect deference, tact and grace, over the Torquay hotel where all the rediscovering of long-lost fathers and the awkward, comic victories of biology over educational training take place.

Characteristically, the production gives this figure sickeningly adorable game-old-buffer dance routines, which enable him to waggle gloved hands and kick up stiff legs, while enthusing his staff of uninspired hoofers with the virtues of team spirit ('Remember that we are all part of a troop/So never let your fingers get caught in the soup').

Towards the end of songs which outline his philosophy, 'You Never Can Tell', fairylights start to flash roguishly round the edge of the stage. The worst moment, though, is in the finale when deferential William comes on to lay down a tray of coffee and feigns humble surprise at the applause begging him to take a bow. You feel less like putting your hands together than sticking your head between your knees.

A cloying archness prevails over the entire evening which gives you, on occasion, a pretty fair sense of what it must be like to be suffocated with a lavender bag. Throughout, it's far from clear just what it is Denis King's mildly pleasant but anaemic music and Benny Green's banal lyrics are hoping to do for the play, beyond showing off to great advantage the superior wit and artistry of Shaw's actual lines.

When Gloria (Teresa Banham) falls in love and discovers feelings that her 'New Woman' training has repressed and when Alexander Hanson's Valentine, the 'duelist of sex' finds himself in the grip of a biological imperative, there is obviously much scope for song to register their comic-sad reduction to romantic cliches. This could only work properly, though, in a climate where cliche was not already the basic unit of lyrical thought, as it is here. When William urges his staff to remember the principle that 'wise men state/All things come to those who wait/On tables', it represents the show's word-play at its most dazzling. Happily Mr Hanson often manages to rise above the ropy material with his ardent, mischievous, attractively sung Valentine.

There is a pointed Shavian joke in the first half where McComus (Edward de Souza) informs the 'emancipated' Mrs Clandon, who has returned after 18 years in Madeira, that there is now only one place in all England where her ideas would pass as advanced. The Church? she suggests. No, the theatre, he replies. At null evenings like this, you could persuade yourself that that gag had not dated.

Continues at the Globe Theatre, Box office (071 494 5065).

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