The times certainly do change. And then again, maybe they don't change as much as we would like to think. In Shaw's 1894 play, banned for almost 30 years by a Lord Chamberlain who condemned it for being "immoral and improper", a clever young woman rejects her mother when she discovers that her expensive school and Oxbridge education have been paid for by her mother's immoral earnings from running a string of continental brothels.
Michael Rudman's handsome but dull revival sails sedately into Richmond in the same week that a highly educated young woman revealed that she had paid for her own education by working as a prostitute and blogging about it as Belle de Jour. That young woman and Mrs Warren are separated by more than a century, but perhaps their choices are not as different as we may like to think. The real pleasure of Shaw's play, even if it does creak like a leaky old barge, is just how modern it can seem, whether it is pricking the balloon of morality or hypocrisy. You feel as if you can hear the playwright chuckling in his grave.
The whole thing is served up with a hefty dose of Victorian melodrama and the possibility that an attack of the vapours is not far away. The best and most charged scene comes between mother and daughter at the end of the second act as Felicity Kendal's pint-sized Mrs Warren explains what happened to her half-sister, who died after working in the white lead factory.
This week's revelations don't date Shaw's play – in fact, they add an extra helping of piquancy to a drama that, like Ibsen's A Doll's House written just 15 years before, shows women attempting to take control of their lives as they come to understand the high cost of living.
There is a tendency on the part of some of the cast to do far too much, when less might be considerably more. But as Vivie, Lucy Briggs-Owen turns in a brave, interesting and complex performance. Her mouth twisting with repressed passion, she suggests something of an embryonic Margaret Thatcher determined to impose order on a disorder, ruthlessly tearing out her own heart to ensure survival in a cut-throat male world.
Ends tonight. Box office: 0844 871 7651. Then touring.
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Guardian: Mrs Warren's Profession
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