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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Comedy


  Lucy Briggs-Owen, Felicity Kendal and Mark Tandy/ Ph: Nobby Clark

Here is a no-brainer. Is it better to spend a short life in a Victorian lead factory on starvation wages than it is a long life on your back, indecently earning decent money?
Despite the obvious moral and mitigating arguments, Britain’s theatre censor in chief, the Lord Chamberlain, ruled that the public would be corrupted if exposed to so bold a justification of prostitution, and so obvious a criticism of society’s inequalities.
So George Bernard Shaw’s 1893 play was banned from public performances in England for another 30 years. It was though performed in New York in 1905 (albeit controversially) and for those who like neat historical coincidences, while this latest revival of Mrs Warren’s Profession runs in the West End, London will see the arrival of the Broadway production of Hair, the show which in 1968 marked the end of the very theatre censorship laws that prevented Shaw’s play from reaching the stage.
A shame then that, even with the eternally youthful national treasure Felicity Kendal in the title role, Michael Rudman’s production feels as old and dated as the those early productions, were they to be exhumed. 
In plot terms, the heart of the matter rests in the shocking realization by the virtuous and bookish Vivie that her university education and privileged upbringing were paid for by her mother’s ill-gotten gains. And with a fair few brothels still on the go, in which Mrs Warren’s odious, aristocratic friend Croft has secretly invested, she has gained plenty.
The scene during which daughter challenges her mother about her past still has the whiff of scandal about it. You can almost hear the sharp intake of breath as the play challenged its first audience’s hypocrisy. But just as a good Ibsen can chime with modern chauvinism, so a good Shaw can reveal contemporary injustices, and so fusty is the evening, that just doesn’t happen here.
Kendal’s Warren has all the learned propriety and vulgar gentility of a nouveau riche madam. And although the clash between this working class mother and her icy middle class daughter (Lucy Briggs-Owens) generates a charge, it is only of low voltage. And because Paul Farnsworth’s realistic (book shelves) and expressionistic (pastel backdrops and screens denoting land and cityscapes) set takes an age to strike and reset between the four acts, Rudman’s production is drained of pace.
Eric Carte lends some old-school comic timing as the drunk Vicar, and Max Bennett as his son ups the energy levels with vigorous impudence, particularly when he challenges David Yelland’s sickeningly suave Croft. But there is no hiding from the sense that this revival exists to provide a vehicle for its deservedly much-loved star. So you leave with the feeling that the play served Kendal, when it really should be the other way round. And when a play's history is more interesting than its performance, it is very hard to recommend.

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