Theatre Review: Mrs Warren’s Profession

Theatre Royal Bath until 19 November
Words by Melissa Blease

From blaming Eve for introducing Adam to forbidden fruit to judging Liz Truss more for her wardrobe than for what she did (or didn’t) do in her brief stint as Prime Minister by way of thousands of years of similar examples that, sadly, haven’t really moved with the times, men have castigated women for being – well, for being women. Not all men, obviously… and hopefully, not even most men. But generally speaking, the whole battle of the sexes thing remains to be a full-on political, social and cultural war.

George Bernard Shaw, however: despite – or, perhaps, because of? – the generation he was born into (Shaw’s life straddled the Victorian, Edwardian and Modern British eras), he largely defied his contemporary archetype, putting strong female characters from varying social and economic backgrounds at the heart of his greatest plays and none-too-subtly advocating equality for all, gender be damned. But damned Shaw was – not least of all by the then-official theatre censor Lord Chamberlain who, in 1894, banned Mrs Warren’s Profession for 30 years on the grounds that it was “immoral and improper, due to the candid discussion of prostitution that takes place in the play”. 

If that was a spoiler alert, it really wasn’t intended to be; even if you’ve never heard of the play, you weren’t thinking that Mrs Warren might have been a housekeeper, cook or actuary, were you? Actually, Mrs Warren’s daughter Vivie is an actuary, thanks to having had a brilliant education paid for by her estranged mother, of whom Vivie knows little about. But when we all learn how Kitty Warren made that money, the smelling salts really hit the pristine handkerchiefs. And, bringing extra-added imbroglio to an already emotionally complex drama, Caroline Quentin plays opposite her real-life daughter Rose in this production.

Mrs Quentin is a deliciously devilish Mrs Warren, delivering her quickfire quips (of which there are many) and sharpest glances (ditto) with polished, charismatic aplomb. Daughter Rose, meanwhile, seems to take her time getting into a comfortable stride as ambitious, headstrong, emotionally detached Vivie, but it becomes clear that her apparent slow start has more to do with the pace of Shaw’s script rather than Rose Quentin’s abilities or Anthony Banks’ direction. By the time Mrs Warren gives Vivie the full down’n’dirty lowdown on the whys and wherefores of her ‘profession’, both actors are in full, powerful swing. Meanwhile… the men: 

As the ostensibly pragmatic, wealthy business investor (and wannabe Vivie suitor) Sir George Crofts, Simon Shepherd is suitably smooth, pompous and dictatorial, cleverly keeping his character’s grubby true colours firmly under his pristine Panama hat until a rather astonishing Big Reveal, which is when charming young fop (also a wannabe Vivie suitor) Frank Gardner (Peter Losasso) drops his charming young foppishness and gets his theatrical big guns out. Giving well-rounded life to the role of Reverend Samuel Gardner (Frank’s father), Matthew Cottle artfully skips between naïve clergyman and all-too-earthly man-with-a-very-down-to-earth-past, while good-natured, culture-loving old romantic Praed doesn’t really bring much more to the intimate party for six other than a nice blast of good-natured, culture-loving old romanticism (again, a failing on Shaw’s slightly convoluted storyline rather than actor Stephen Rahman-Hughes’ capacity). 

Behind all the goings on, David Woodhead’s sets – which reduce both Mrs Warren’s English country cottage and Reverend Gardner’s church to squashed, 50% aspect – either act as an analogy to further endorse Shaw’s points about women being subjugated or make the action a bit more claustrophobic, depending on your own perspective. Anyway…

By the time questions ranging from the details of Vivie’s parentage to the moral implications of Mrs Warren’s profession (and her daughter’s privilege and responsibilities thereof) are addressed, we’re with Shaw, socio-political quandaries, feminist perspective, hypocrisy of the patriarchy’n’all; yes indeed, this production of Mrs Warren’s Profession is a Shaw thing.

Footnote: To add yet more back story to this fascinating mother vs. daughter, men vs. women melodrama, it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that Shaw himself had a lifelong obsession regarding who his own biological father was and, despite a tricky relationship with his mother, allowed her to subsidise his negligible income from writing for at least four years, during which time he wrote Mrs Warren’s Profession. That’s all, folks!

Photography credit: Pamela Raith