Mrs Warren's Profession

George Bernard Shaw
A Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, co-production
Nottingham Playhouse
(2007)

Production photo

George Bernard Shaw is the only person to have been awarded a Nobel prize - for literature in 1925 - and an Oscar - for the Pygmalion screenplay in 1938. He wrote more than sixty plays. Mrs Warren's Profession is in my opinion one of his finest. Yet it's often overlooked.

Why do so many companies ignore it? It's not as though Mrs Warren's Profession is difficult to stage or requires a huge cast.

Is it because it's among his earlier plays that are grouped together as the "plays unpleasant"? Possibly. Is it because it's considered dated? Maybe. In Shaw's time Mrs Warren's Profession was regarded as so scandalous it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain. A description of what Mrs Warren really does is never uttered. But these days a woman making her fortune from a chain of brothels scattered across Europe will hardly classify as tabloid newspaper headlines.

Yet to dismiss the play as old-fashioned is to ignore the other themes in the play apart from prostitution which are as relevant today as they were towards the end of the 19th century. Hypocrisy, exploitation and a fractious mother-daughter relationship are at times uncomfortably examined.

So plaudits to Nottingham Playhouse and Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre for tackling this intriguing social commentary with its rigid examination of morality.

It's the second co-production from these two theatres who did Cat On A Hot Tin Roof two years ago. Future collaborations will no doubt be eagerly anticipated.

Mrs Warren is a woman who rises from a humble background to a position of wealth and acceptability in society. But her Cambridge-educated daughter Vivie is horrified to discover how her mother made her fortune.

Vivie forgives her mother when she learns Mrs Warren had to take to prostitution to enable them to escape their lowly existence. But Vivie cuts herself off from her mother when she realises Mrs Warren is still reaping the profits from her thriving business.

Paola Dionisotti gives a glorious performance as Mrs Warren and is able to make the audience feel sympathetic towards her because of her determination to look after her daughter. Occasionally she - deliberately - drops the middle-class accent and confesses, "I always was a bit of a vulgarian". It's not difficult to see how she rose from being a scullery maid and a waitress to being in a position of power and influence.

Emma Stansfield is similarly outstanding as Vivie, the unconventional daughter who likes smoking a cigar and has a "powerful fist" of a handshake. She is vivacious and strong-minded, showing a touching side towards her mother when they grow close and at the end proving equally determined that their relationship must be severed.

There's also a spirited performance from Antony Eden as Vivie's admirer Frank Gardner while Dougal Lee is a perfectly scoundrelly Sir George Crofts.

Tony Cownie directs Mrs Warren's Profession with aplomb although at times the script seems incredibly wordy and the play seems to fizzle out after the break-up between the two leading characters.

Despite that, this production of Mrs Warren's Profession is a joy. It really was a good job that the Playhouse and the Royal Lyceum decided to revive it.

"Mrs Warren's Profession " runs until March 31st

Reviewer: Steve Orme