Sunday, 20 November 2022

REVIEW: Mrs Warren’s Profession at the Theatre Royal Bath

George Bernard Shaw left an incredible legacy of classic plays including the wonderful Pygmalion (written in 1913) and the tragic St Joan (written in 1923), but Mrs Warren’s Profession predates them both written in 1893 but was not fully performed due to its discussion on prostitution until after they were staged in 1925. Each has strong female roles at the centre of their stories. There are similarities in the way in which the central women In Pygmalion and Mrs Warren’s Profession are transformed from impoverished lower-class girls into successful high-society ladies. Each of the ladies has a rebellious streak against the authority figures within the stories.

The play’s suppression for thirty years seems rather ludicrous today with Mrs Warren’s success as a brothel Madam and co-owner with houses in Brussels, Vienna and Budapest alluded to rather than explicitly discussed. The surprise today is that Shaw imagined this entrepreneurial success back in the 19th Century in what appears to be simultaneously a dig at capitalist activity and also the hypocrisy of the criticism of prostitution at a time when there were limited female employment opportunities and women were expected to marry for financial security in return for sex with their husbands while those who sought financial independence or escape from poverty through prostitution were looked down upon. Its social commentary may still be relevant today, but the play lacks the wit of Oscar Wilde, and the production always hit all the right notes. 

It's sumptuously staged in a design by David Woodhead with a pointillist backcloth and deliberately too small-scale detailed pastoral buildings of Vivie’s cottage and the Reverend’s Church and arched gate but these create awkward moments of entrances for laughs that seem out of place. Is it meant to reflect the small, minded attitudes of the characters? They contrast sharply with the full-scale grey actuarial office truck of scene four where Vivie is based and after 2 days has her name on the door! The scene changes are elegantly and smoothly handled to maintain the fast pace of the show.

It was a good marketing ploy to cast Caroline Quentin and her daughter Rose as the mother and daughter at the centre of the play although perhaps their offstage relationship means we never really believed the estranged and difficult onstage relationship. Mrs Warren hardly knows her daughter but has ensured her profits have been well used to educate her to a high standard and give her independence and ambition beyond the norms of the society of the day. Vivie rejects offers of marriage and sets out to carve herself a successful serious career. When she learns how her mother has earned the money, she seemed neither shocked nor surprised and when she is cursed by her mother at the end, she seems rather self-satisfied and pleased with the result. Too often the delivery gets a laugh rather than highlighting the tragedy of their relationship.

The men of the play are traditional stereotypical caricatures without depth. Best of all is the Reverend Gardner played by Matthew Cottle a parish priest with a past that haunts him and he brilliantly captures the contrast between the dutiful father and vicar in Scene 1 and the dishevelled man the morning after in scene 2. His son Frank, played by Peter Losasso, is the young lothario chasing after Vivie but he does not quite capture the smooth foppish charm of a gambler seeking a life of luxury.

Simon Shepherd is Sir George Cottle, Mrs Warren’s co-owner of the Brothels, an unpleasant wealthy selfish playboy who despite perhaps being unsure if he is her father makes a play for Vivie. Stephen Rahman-Hughes is a middle-aged architect. Praed claims he knows nothing of Mrs Warren’s business. He seems very nervous in Scene 1 constantly adjusting his glasses on his nose and his role seems a bystander to the action.

Mrs Warren’s Profession is a classic play which is well staged and elegantly dressed in this production which opened in Bath and tours to six southern playhouses until April 2023. But its story of the female economic power in a patriarchal society and critique of conventional morality of the time comes across as slightly cartoonish and the gentle laughs mask the political target of its author. It's an enjoyable comedy of manners and an amusing take on the attitudes of over one hundred years ago. There may still be more work to do but we have moved on from the simple presentation of choices women face in society today.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row I | Price of Ticket: £44   

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