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A CurtainUp London London Review
Mrs Warren's Profession

I always wanted to be a good woman. I tried honest work; and I was slave-driven until I cursed the day I ever heard of honest work. I was a good mother: and because I made my daughter a good woman she turns me out as if I was a leper. Oh, if only I had my life to live over again! — Mrs Warren
Mrs Warren's Profession
Felicity Kendall as Mrs Warren (Photo: Nobby Clark)
Played with a deceptively beguiling smile by Felicity Kendal, Mrs Warren's profession is the oldest. Once a smart young prostitute who saved her earnings, she is now a discreet but wealthy madame, running high class brothels in half the capitals of Europe, a trade that has made her a millionairess and helps keep her respectable business partners happy.

Financial success has also paid for her only daughter Vivie's education, a Cambridge bluestocking with sufficient resolve to reject her mother's money and condemn her for continuing in the evil enterprise. Rising star Lucy Briggs-Owen as Vivie, opens and closes the story, a journey from priggish academic, kicking her heels in a Surrey garden, to the Shavian "new woman", making her independent way in the world of law and insurance after discovering the source of her mother's wealth.

But Shaw's early play, seeing virtues in vice and the vice in Victorian virtues, was banned by the Lord Chamberlain for more than thirty years as "immoral and improper". Written in 1894 and first published as the third of his three Plays Unpleasant it was not staged until 1902 and then only at a private club performance. Worse, when performed in New York in 1905, the entire company was threatened with arrest for immorality.

Happily Michael Rudman's crisply detailed revival, matching telling action to the conversational exchanges, also discovers a world of emotion behind the words; notably Kendal's howls of pain and despair at two telling moments. And with a voice like a rasp she creates a powerful, sexy portrayal of the vital vulgarian with a dark secret; at one shocking moment boldly kissing an attractive young boy, Vivie's ardent suitor Frank, full on the lips as a bit of sexual education and passing it off as a "motherly kiss".

As written, the four male roles are merely foils to the central duo. But David Yelland as the creepy lecher Sir George Crofts, Mrs Warren's principal investor, swaggers dangerously with a knowing leer, hands thrust deep in the pockets of his carefully tailored trousers; while Max Bennett as the limber young Frank creates a generous stage presence, lifting several scenes with his youthful vitality, sharing a sustained romantic embrace with Briggs-Owen's otherwise ice-cold Vivie that looks like one of those Edwardian genre paintings of true love in a garden.

Good support comes from Mark Tandy as the debonair architect Praed, hovering on the edges of events while helping to unravel the plot, and Eric Carte as the bumbling Haslemere incumbent, once Mrs Warren's secret lover, whose indiscretions carry unexpected echoes across two decades.

Paul Farnsworth's sparse set designs were built for touring: the first three acts are backed by impressionist rustic gardens and a glimpse of Surrey hills on translucent sliding panels which, apart from downstage furniture, leave the rest to our imagination. But for the fourth act, with no happy ending, we get a realistic setting, an austere London law office that effectively transports us from Arcadia to urban practical politics and the harsh but inevitable resolve of Shaw's final scene.

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Mrs Warren's Profession
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Michael Rudman

Starring: Max Bennett, Lucy Briggs-Owen, Felicity Kendal, David Yelland
With: Eric Carte and Mark Tandy
Design: Design: Paul Farnsworth
Lighting Designer: David Howe
Sound: Jason Barnes
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with one interval 
Produced by Theatre Royal Bath Productions
Box Office: 0870 060 6622
Booking to 19th June 2010 
Reviewed by John Thaxter based on 25th March 2010 performance at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1Y 4DN (Tube: Piccadilly Circus) 

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