All the elements are there for a gripping as well as intelligent staging of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession; it’s just that somehow they don’t amalgamate properly. The casting is interesting and there’s a bold design by Paul Farnsworth which blends projection of Helen Allingham-style exteriors for the country scenes with naturalistic furniture. Costumes are of the 1890s, when this “play unpleasant” was written (though not performed for eight years), and director Michael Rudman keeps both dialogue and action on the move. That could be the problem.
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You need crisp articulation as well as straight-forward dramatic skills to keep an audience focused. The two younger members of the cast – Lucy Briggs-Owen as “new woman” Vivvie and Max Bennett as charmingly lazy Frank –  don’t always project their lines, so that looking at them has to take the place of listening to them. Which is surely not at all what Shaw intended. The end of the fourth act when Vivie tears up Frank’s note, then becomes too abrupt; a full-stop rather than an ellipsis.
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Felicity Kendal as the working girl who has developed her business into a highly profitable commercial enterprise, sufficiently so to give her daughter first a private and then a university education, is never vulgar – as Mrs Warren is intended to be – so that we tend to be on her side rather than that of Vivie. That may be a thoroughly 21st century attitude, of course. Although he shows his true colours in his third act confrontation with Vivie, David Yelland as Crofts is not quite unpleasant as Shaw surely intended.
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Hovering slightly outside the main action are Praed (Mark Tandy) and the Rev Gardner (Eric Carte). Tandy gives a finely detailed portrait of a seriously minded dilettante, one for whom the arts are a refuge from the more upsetting elements of everyday human commerce. It’s not a caricature, and works all the better for it. Carte’s cameo of the former sower of wild oats who has slid into a rustic rectory without any under-pinning of a real vocation is neat and affectionately cynical.
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Shaw is a dramatist whose polemics still make good theatre. If we (the audience) are left dissatisfied when the final curtain falls, that’s a pity. This production should have worked. It almost does. But not quite.