George Bernard Shaw is, to a certain extent, rather overlooked, rather out of fashion. Yes, Pygmalion is frequently done but the myriad other excellent plays only occasionally get an airing. The canon of Shaw’s work is far more comprehensive than that of Oscar Wilde, but it is Wilde who is better known and more often performed. Where Wilde is thought of as witty and fun, Shaw is thought of as wordy and dull. The Everyman Cheltenham production of Mrs Warren’s Profession aims to redress the balance.
Out of Shaw’s sixty-odd plays Mrs Warren’s Profession would, I guess, only just make it into the top ten of his most performed works, so the Everyman must be seriously commended for taking on a play which was always going to be a bit of a hard sell.
I must confess to not having seen this play before and I have to say it came as a very pleasant surprise. Yes, it is very wordy, but then it has a lot to say and I did not find it heavy going at all. In fact, at the beginning, it has some of The Importance of Being Earnest about it. It opens in the garden of a Victorian house – there is the “presentable old blackguard” matriarch, the independent young lady and even a bumbling vicar.
Mrs Warren’s profession is prostitution – she is a high-class madam and it is her ill-begotten gains from a string of brothels that have enabled her liberated, clever, though unaware daughter Vivie to study and graduate in mathematics with honours at Cambridge – almost unheard of in Victorian times.
Like The Importance, Mrs Warren is a play about the social mores of its day but while Wilde is, on the surface, frivolous, Shaw has larger fish to fry than whether cucumber sandwiches should have their crusts cut off. But they do have in common the problem of what to call things. Although Oscar Wilde’s characters are not sure if they are Algernon or Earnest, Wilde himself would have been happy to have called a spade a spade, had he ever seen one. Shaw, on the other hand, never mentions Mrs Warren’s profession by name. It’s not that we are left guessing, it’s pretty obvious from the start what’s going on. So much so that the play, after its first private performance in 1902, was banned for 23 years and the first Broadway production was raided by the police.
Paul Milton’s production is one of good old-fashioned values with sumptuous outfits for the ladies and walking canes for the men. First of all he must be congratulated on passing the first big test – the casting. The company of six were all excellent. Christopher Timothy was superb as the suitably slimy and louche Sir George Crofts, but it was the two ladies that really shone. Sue Holderness’s strikingly stunning Mrs Warren may have been able to afford a new frock every day but the silky veneer was never quite enough to disguise the tart without a heart. Emily Woodward, as her daughter Vivie, is a convincing chip off the old block (of granite) and is, like her mother, aware that a gal’s gotta do what a gal’s gotta do and as Mrs W says, “Lord help the world if everybody took to doing the right thing.” They both earn their livings between the sheets, although Vivie’s are on a desk and contain lists of figures.
Visually the semi one-size-fits-all scenery was a bit like the play; it became darker as it went on. The set for the first act looked as though it had been shipped in from the Chelsea Flower Show with enough almost garish blooms to rejuvenate our dwindling bee population. By the end it had been pared down to the sparseness of a boxing ring for when the gloves finally and irrevocably came off.
This production addresses important issues but addresses them in a way that is palatable and very entertaining with some outstanding performances. If there was any justice in the world the play would be up there with The Importance of Being Earnest and Pygmalion. Go and see the Mrs Warren’s Profession and you’ll see what I mean. ★★★★☆ Michael Hasted at Cheltenham 20/06/15
Production photo by Farrows-Creative
Click here to read Michael Hasted’s exclusive interview with Paul Milton talking about MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION and on the videos below for exclusive audio interviews with members of the cast.