One of his “Plays Unpleasant”, George Bernard Shaw wrote this in 1892, but it was considered just too scandalous and improper for the stage by the Lord Chancellor. It did not receive a production until 1902 in a club theatre which did not need his approval.. It was an immediate sensation which sent the critics reeling.
What Shaw did was draw attention to a truth – the way women were undervalued, overworked and underpaid in the menial jobs that were open to them and were forced into prostitution in order to stay alive. He also pointed out that so-called respectable women were sold into a kind of prostitution by being forced to marry for money.
What the general public was unaware of was that the whole profession was big business and men like his character Sir George Croft were happy to take 35 per cent of immoral earnings. Not only that, but properties rented by brothel owners were often church property so churches also benefited from the exploitation of the women. This obviously set the class obsessed and hypocritical Edwardian society in a panic and GBS was vilified for bringing corruption out into the open.
His heroine, Vivie Warren (Emily Holden), is an intelligent, well educated young woman who has ambitions to be a lawyer. Her mother is a shadowy character she hardly knows and this is a reunion between mother and daughter and some of their friends - the free thinking Bohemian artist Praed; played with great sweetness by Chris Bearne, Frank (Max Davis), son of the local vicar and in love with Vivie, and the venal businessman Crofts - portrayed with roguish charm by Keith Myers. There is a gradual dawning of the true situation to the young woman who though self-possessed and intelligent is not a woman of the world.
Holden is a powerful actress who manages to convey the somewhat heartless character without any loss of sympathy. Dot Smith plays the lower class Kitty Warren as a woman who is proud of her lowly roots, the way she has fought to survive and the expensive education she has been able to afford for her daughter. The scene between them as she explains to her daughter why she entered this profession is deeply moving and would give the play a happy ending were it not for further revelations in Act two.
David Myerscough-Jones has produced a clever minimalist set and the author helps out furniture-wise by making his characters say expositional lines like “I’ll bring you a chair!”. Michael Friend’s direction is a little slow at times, though he shows great respect for the text. The actors have yet to work out the acoustics of the theatre and their voices are uneven, but familiarity should sort this out.
Definitely worth seeing - and the next production at Pentameters is Harry Meacher’s production of Heartbreak House A kind of Shaw festival, and not before time!