There’s a spark, and an undertow of bad behaviour, missing from Michael Rudman’s perfectly measured revival of Bernard Shaw’s third of his “Plays Unpleasant.” Felicity Kendal is swift and soignée, but she’s not the real deal as a spuriously respectable high-flown Madame with a chain of brothels starting in Brussels.
The mother and father of all mother and daughter plays doesn’t ignite in the showdown between Kendal’s Mrs Warren and her Cambridge-educated mathematician lawyer daughter Vivie, played by Lucy Briggs-Owen as a pouting, ideologically rubbery adversary instead of as a fiercely principled “New Woman” opponent.
Unanswered questions of Vivie’s paternity – “Are you my mother, where are my relatives?” – bump into expectations in the marriage game involving her callow half-brother Frank Gardner (Max Bennett) and David Yelland’s parchment-skinned villainous capitalist Sir George Crofts.
Crofts is Mrs Warren’s business partner in the brothel business, and her mother’s attempt to align the real world with her own history of poverty and degradation does little to make Vivie change her mind about him, or anything else.
Most productions of Mrs Warren's Profession 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.
There is something bird-like in her trim physique, sheathed in glistening satins of scarlet, silver and dove grey, gathered to a 12-inch waist and topped in the last act with a Martita Hunt-style pill-box hat.
Joan Plowright and Brenda Blethyn have milked the whirlwind vulgarian origins of Mrs Warren for a much stronger conflict, which presages the classic mobility of children who “make good” and reject their background. And Coral Browne and Penelope Keith have mixed this spiritual hauteur with a definitive grandeur about the money question.
Kendal is bitingly good at the comic put-downs and social defensiveness, but she falls between these 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. The Surrey hills and gardens are pleasingly evoked in Paul Farnsworth’s design of translucent sliding screens, lit by David Howe, and the standing furniture in the country cottage and Vivie’s London chambers are slotted in effectively to reinforce an old-fashioned period piece rather than release what can still, and should, be an electrifying dramatic event.