You Can Never Tell (When It Will Go All Wrong)

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 19-25, 2011)

Lilian Njui as Dolly and Nickson Walubengo as Mr valentine in You Can Never Tell

If there is a chair on the stage and a person in a wig sits on it and reads out a sentence, you will believe that this person is a judge in his courtroom. And if the person exits and two people in white coats walk in immediately discussing the health of a patient, you will not question how this very space has transformed itself from a courtroom into a hospital in a matter of seconds. This is because, once you take your seat in a theatre auditorium, you consciously or unconsciously engage your mind to what is known in theatre circles as suspension of disbelief.

I rather hoped that theatre directors in Nairobi would have more faith in the audience’s suspended disbelief, when I watched Strathmore University Drama Society’s production of You Can Never Tell (1897) by Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw (1956-1950), on Friday September 9.

Though I am now well acquainted with the Dramsoc’s use of stage space, this time, the play was staged in the Strathmore auditorium where the lighting is not suited to theatre productions but rather to lectures and other forms of public speaking. Thus, the usual manner of having two or more sets simultaneously, presumably to facilitate change from one scene into the next, did not come off. For one, the lighting did not allow for lights off on the sets that were not in use. Secondly, the arrangement resulted in too much clutter on the stage and the cast being limited to a very small part of the stage at any given time, which was a shame as the stage is very large. This led to awkward movement around furniture, which greatly compromised the actors’ performance.

This persistence on realism- that there must be a dentist’s surgery that looks as much as a dentist’s surgery as resources can allow, and a dining room and a hotel room suite and a window overlooking the seaside, all at the same time- robs the stage of its magic.

And after all that, the play lacked the attention to detail that realism demands, though it wasn’t clear if this was due to negligence on the part of the director, Nick Muthama or the stage manager, Paula Bosire. The dining table- in an up-market hotel- was set with an uncharacteristic mix of goblets and wine glasses, Mrs Chande did not sit facing the table squarely and primly in a manner that reflects her social class, ginger beer came in a Smirnoff bottle, scotch was served in mugs, and the audience even succumbed to unsolicited mirth, when water was poured out of a green plastic jug.

Mrs Chande (Mercy Shitowala) and her children Gloria (Nicole Dusenge), Dolly (Lilian Njui) and Philip (Benjamin Kamicha) have returned to Kenya, having lived in South Africa for eighteen years. They finally meet their estranged father Mr Cosmas (Ezekiel Mackenzie) when Dolly and Philip meet him at the dentist’s surgery and invite him to lunch without knowing who he really is.

In the meantime, the starving dentist Mr Valentine (Nickson Walubengo) who hasn’t paid his rent for six weeks to his landlord Mr Cosmas falls in love with Gloria and a number of wooing scenes ensue, in which Gloria declares- owing to her being raised in her mother’s feminist beliefs- that being in love is unreasonable and ‘unscientific’ and Mr Valentine sets to prove that the modern feminist woman is far ‘easier’ than the traditional, home-making woman.

This adaptation, set in Mombasa instead of an English sea-side town, should have been, in principal, refreshing comedy for comedy’s sake only that the cast, being of extremely varying ability, failed on many occasions to convey the conflict, chemistry and satire that give this play its punch.

Njui and Kamicha capture the characters of Dolly and Philip respectively with precision, being two children who are outspoken to the point of being offensive whilst still being innocent and well-meaning. Shitolwa however, conveys a soft-spoken, gentle, doting mother which is the clear opposite of what the character of the hard-lined feminist Mrs Chande should be, making the characters of Dolly, Philip and insensitive Gloria unconvincing, since their characters should be a reflection of the mother’s radical stance about life.

Walubengo played his role far better than I have seen him in other roles but the romantic scenes with him and Gloria lacked chemistry possibly due to the clutter on stage that made movement difficult and unnatural, the background music that drowned out pregnant silences and nuances and the complete lack of mood and ambience in the lighting.

© Anne Manyara 2011

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