Mrs Warren's Profession

George Bernard Shaw
A Theatre Royal Bath production
Chichester Festival Theatre and touring
(2009)

Production photo

No prizes for guessing the subject matter of this play - the ‘oldest profession’, and one which supplied Mrs. Warren’s daughter with a very comfortable upbringing as well as a Cambridge education, but society was shocked by the fact that a woman could descend to making her living in this manner, conveniently ignoring the fact that it was society who had placed her in an impossible position (no pun intended) in the first place.

First produced in America in 1905 - eleven years after it was written - it caused such outrage among the press that the company were arrested, and the play was banned in England until 1925. While the notion of prostitution is not going to shock any of today’s audiences, what is shocking is the realisation that the degradation and desperation which forced many women to sell their bodies at that time is not totally behind us.

The most moving scene in the play is Felicity Kendall, as Mrs. Warren, revealing to her daughter the secret she has concealed for years. She is visibly distressed as she relates the reason for her career choice, recalling the tragedy of her sisters’ lives (working desperately long hours in appalling conditions for a pittance, with only an early death to look forward to) and who can blame her for preferring a life of wealth and power.

Daughter Vivie certainly doesn’t - at least not at first. Up and coming young actress Lucy Briggs-Owen has taken on the task of making a difficult character believable and rises to the challenge in a performance which bodes well for her future. From Vivie’s no-nonsense view of her future life which consists of work followed by a comfortable chair, a cigar and a whisky (is this her way to compete in a man’s world?) her face contorts in an agony of indecisiveness as she changes from sympathy to rejection, indulging in a little romantic dalliance before rejecting the life offered. Although they have taken a different path the motives and driving force of mother and daughter are from the same mould - both intent on independently making their way in a man’s world.

Eminent actor David Yelland is Mrs. Warren’s business partner Crofts - affable, confident and successful - but the icy steel core to his soul is not far from the surface.

Eric Carte cuts a comical figure as the Reverend Samuel Gardner with an unaccustomed hangover and with his own guilty secrets, while Max Bennett plays his irreverent son Frank - the epitome of indolent youth and with no intention of ever doing a job of work. He has the best, most comical lines and delivers them with complete assurance and perfect timing.

Shaw is fond of pointing out the fact that for women at that time ‘making a good marriage’ was just as much prostitution as taking on the role for money and in a neat twist puts young Frank in the same position.

One item which did surprise me in this production is the bare stage and painted backcloth that comprises Paul Farnsworth’s set, with a multitude of props taking a great deal of work between scene changes. Remembering his magnificent vicarage garden in Entertaining Angels and the stupendously lavish sophistication of his Lady be Good set, this was quite a disappointment, but aside from that Michael Rudman's production is entertaining and amusing, a delicate balance between comedy and emotion with liberal doses of moral reflection on the injustices of life and whether - as Shaw believed - the removal of censorship really is an aid to progress.

Touring to Cambridge and Malvern

Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its West End transfer to the Comedy Theatre

Reviewer: Sheila Connor