Michael Rudman’s touring Bath Theatre Royal production of Mrs Warren's Profession, starring Felicity Kendal as the eponymous matriarch, arrived at the West End's Comedy Theatre last week (25 March 2010, previews from 16 March), where it continues until 19 June.
George Bernard Shaw’s 1893 drama centres on the relationship between Mrs Warren (Felicity Kendal) and her prudish daughter, Vivie (Lucy Briggs-Owen). Mrs Warren is a self-made Victorian matron whose Cambridge-educated daughter, Vivie, is horrified to discover that her mother's fortune was made managing high-class brothels.
The general critical consensus was that Rudman’s “perfectly measured revival” is a handsome but conventional production that does little to dispel the view that the play is “an old-fashioned period piece” when it “can still, and should, be an electrifying dramatic event”. Critical opinion varied widely on Kendal’s performance, with some hailing it “excellent” while others suggested she had missed the character’s “undertow of bad behaviour”. The crucial mother-daughter dynamic of the play was also debated, with opinion ranging from “superbly played” to disappointment that it was not “a more searching, involved relationship”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “There’s a spark, and an undertow of bad behaviour, missing from Michael Rudman’s perfectly measured revival … Felicity Kendal is swift and soignée, but she’s not the real deal as a spuriously respectable high-flown Madame … The mother and father of all mother and daughter plays doesn’t ignite in the showdown … Most productions find a tragic chime in Mrs. Warren’s outburst of “I kept myself lonely for you.” But with this Vivie, you wonder why she bothered, and anyway Ms Kendal delivers the line as a bad-tempered screeching parrot … Kendal is bitingly good at the comic put-downs and social defensiveness, but she falls between the two polarities of natural coarseness and vivid conviction, so that the play sags, wrongly, beneath a blanket of toothless argument, despite the nice edge in Mark Tandy’s attendant architect and Eric Carte’s secretly lubricious rector … an old-fashioned period piece rather than … what can still, and should, be an electrifying dramatic event.”
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “The heart of George Bernard Shaw’s profoundly moral play is the relationship between a mother and daughter … the roles are sharply delineated by Felicity Kendal and Lucy Briggs-Owen … Kendal is impressively nuanced. At first her Mrs Warren exhibits a pedantic playfulness, and when she administers a kiss as if lancing a cyst we see that her poise is a performance. Later, enraged, she gurgles viscerally and yowls with rage; she is at her best when plangently revisiting the indignities of her past … There is strong support, especially from David Yelland as Mrs Warren’s business partner, a comically supercilious lecher … Shaw is sharp though also tortuously wordy. Rudman extracts all the emotion from the text but tilts it towards melodrama, and Shaw’s speeches often sound just that — not the utterances of real characters but the rhetoric of their creator, an impassioned progressive standing on his soapbox. Yet even if the play’s joints creak, it contains moments of power.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “ The play has its implausible, melodramatic and preachy moments, yet Rudman’s revival has the energy to keep you engrossed. That, in spite of a questionable performance or two. Should Yelland really be so much the sauntering Chekhovian roué in the white suit, so little the coarse brute Shaw wanted? And couldn’t Kendal be a bit more the woman others see as 'brazen' … she’s tough enough to screech and hurl over a chair and she’s pained enough to sob when Vivie renounces her for a proto-feminist career. That’s fine. That’s watchable. But it’s not quite the bordello tycoon in all her rasping majesty.”
Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (two stars, reviewed in Richmond) – “Michael Rudman's handsome but dull revival sails sedately into Richmond … 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 … The whole thing is served up with a hefty dose of Victorian melodrama … 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.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – "More than a century on it still holds the stage superbly, though impatient modern audiences might find the lengthy scene changes in Michael Rudman’s admirable, unashamedly old-fashioned production a penance ... Felicity Kendal has rarely been better than she is here, deeply poignant as she describes the dirt poor background that she escaped by going on the game, and unapologetically proud of all the money she has made. Sometimes Kendal can overdo the gurgling charm. Not here. At times she is truly ferocious, at others movingly racked with grief. There is a superb performance too from Lucy Briggs-Owen as the daughter who is every bit as fierce and independent-minded as her mother.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (two stars) -“Felicity Kendal as a multinational madam? This is the big leap required… A combination of Shavian verbosity and disappointing acting limits the show, alas. The opening and closing scenes are punishingly windy. There may be a classical purity to Shaw's structure, but it is a pity he does not show us Mrs. Warren in her element, in one of her brothels … Much as I normally enjoy Miss Kendal's art, I'm afraid she doesn't show us enough of Mrs Warren's undoubted steel, or amorality, or devilishness, or sexual hunger … I didn't feel she had quite worked out what made the character tick … Miss Kendal does have a biting kiss with her daughter's boyfriend, but it needs more than that brief glimpse of her rougher side … Mr Yelland is chilling as Crofts and Lucy Briggs-Owen, after a fidgety start, makes Vivie a decisive young woman nervously exploring her principles … A modern theatregoer may also expect a more searching, involved relationship between a mother and daughter. Or at least a better idea from Miss Kendal as to why Mrs. Warren is so remote from her child.”
Paul Callan in the Daily Express (three stars) – “Felicity Kendal, who plays the determined Mrs. Warren, has been bestowed the status of National Treasure - making it dangerous to criticise her … One half-expected her to give her usual pert, dimply performance, twinkling away and managing to stir many a manly loin across the Home Counties … There is very little twinkling or pertness here as she brings us a Mrs Warren who has a grim determination to succeed in a world where women have few options open to them Top of Form
Bottom of … There are some splendid scenes, full of anger, even, between Felicity Kendal's Mrs Warren and the highly talented Lucy Briggs-Owen, who plays the trenchant Vivie. We see Felicity Kendal in a seldom-shown light. She can scream like a virago, hurl chairs around, cry like a selfish mother at will and roar with a cool defiance. It is an excellent performance … David Yelland is a snarling, venal Sir George Crofts, and his attempt to propose to Vivie, as if buying a business, is a masterpiece of Shaw's writing. And Max Bennett is polished as another potential suitor, Frank.”
- Jude Offord