George Bernard Shaw came up with a shocker when, in 1894 he wrote Mrs Warren’s Profession, a play about a woman who was a partner in a continental chain of brothels. This was the sort of thing polite Victorian society spoke about and it was banned for thirty years.
The woman in question, Mrs Warren, played by the much-loved Felicity Kendal doesn’t even tell her daughter how her Cambridge education and monthly allowance has been paid for.
I would have thought that a woman from a low background like Mrs Warren would have been a bit like Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, talking posh most of the time but occasionally lapsing into common speak.
It’s a pity this doesn’t happen for it would have given the play some variety from the distinctly upper class tones of everyone else.
All the same you can’t help having a soft spot for this madam in her brightly coloured suits and large, feathered hats who has a defiant pride in her life style. When she reveals her murky past to her daughter, Vivie (Lucy Briggs-Owen) at first seems to understand that the oldest profession was the only chance of earning a bob or two in the days when women’s work was limited.
But when she discovers the extent of her mother’s current involvement in prostitution, she turns on her with a venom that takes the wind out of her sails and we realise these two will never be reconciled again. Bigg's Owen's Vivie has a very different character and outlook on life to that of her mother’s.
She is straight-laced, serious, ambitious and no nonsense. From her performance on press night, it looks as though Lucy will soon be following in Felicity’s footsteps as an actor to be reckoned with.
It is suspected that the hypocritical Reverend Samuel Gardner (Eric Carte) may be Vivie’s father with consequences for the close relationship between her and her half brother, Frank (Max Bennett).
Everything about this play is seedy, especially the men. Mrs Warren’s business partner Sir George Croft is a case in point. David Yelland plays him as a smoothie. I love it when this ungracious 55-year-old attempts to propose marriage to the horrified Vivie.
It’s a light-hearted play which, nevertheless, takes a dig at hypocrisy and capitalism. But, unfortunately, at times it seems flat and, apart from muted applause, the audience reaction was conveyed by a man on my right who was snoring loudly.