Theatre review: Mrs Warren’s Profession

Posted on: 13 April 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews Mrs Warren’s Profession which is being revived in a splendid new production at the Comedy Theatre.

The rampant hypocrisy of Victorian society and its constrained morals is laid bare by Bernard Shaw in his favourite play Mrs Warren’s Profession which is revived in a splendid new production directed by Michael Rudman at the Comedy Theatre.

Mrs Warren’s daughter Vivie has never really known much about her mother. A prim young woman, she has enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, a Cambridge education, a generous monthly allowance and now has ambitions to go into law. Is it conceivable that all this privilege and respectability has been financed from the proceeds of the oldest profession? How will Vivie react when she finds out the awful truth about her mother’s ill-gotten gains which had allowed her to move out of poverty into respectability?

Written in 1894 but banned from performance until the racy 1920s, Shaw’s ultimate test of a mother-daughter relationship is one of his most witty and provocative plays. The hypocrisy that Shaw exposes here arises from maintaining the pretence that prostitution is shameful and a scourges upon society, while in reality Mrs Warren’s transgressions stem from the social conditions of the time. Shaw also points out that prostitution is organised internationally by capitalists in order to make a profit in the same way as other commercial activities. The value of the play lies in its continuing relevance - today social conditions may not be what they were over a century ago but hypocrisy is still rampant in all strata’s of British society (witness the MP’s expenses scandal), due to the clever eyed, unsentimental approach Shaw adopted to treat his theme.

Rudman here skilfully negotiates the transition from comedy to drama, whilst the revelation of painful truths is both persuasive and poignant, though I could have done without the rather lengthily scene changes. Paul Farnsworth’s beautifully evocative sets do much to enhance the atmosphere and create a sense of reality.

But it is the first-rate performances from a stellar cast that really bring this play so vividly to life, particularly Felicity Kendal as Mrs Warren, a role she seems to have been born to play and which she makes genuinely moving, Lucy Briggs-Owen as her independent-minded daughter Vivie, David Yelland as Mrs Warren’s business partner, and Erio Carte as a rector who was once one of Mrs Warren’s clients but now regards himself as a figure of moral rectitude and expects his son to follow suit.

In short then a civilised and rewarding evening in the theatre and well worth the price of a ticket.

By Laurence Green

Where: Comedy Theatre

Box Office: 0844 871 7622

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