REVIEW: Mrs Warren’s Profession at Cambridge Arts Theatre

SWS 28 Mrs Warren

SWS 28 Mrs Warren - Credit: Archant

Mrs Warren’s Profession by Bernard Shaw at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, July 25. Review by ANGELA SINGER.

Don’t judge a woman until you have walked a mile in her shoes. When this play was written, there were an estimated 80,000 prostitutes in London, many of them children – out of population of about two and a half million.

Everyone knew it went on, men at every level of society took part in it and no one wanted to talk about it. When Shaw wrote this play in 1893, the play was banned by the censor, the Lord Chamberlain. When it was performed in New York, in 1902, the cast were arrested for infringing the laws of decency.

This is still a brave play, which makes the audience raise the same questions as it leaves the theatre. If the only options open to you, as a young woman, are working with a deadly poison in a white lead factory or being humiliated for a living as a servant, wouldn’t getting wealthy by pleasing rich men become an attractive proposition? Especially when respectable women are doing exactly the same thing, only they chose just one rich man and marry him.

And doesn’t it get even more attractive when as you get older, you can rake it in by helping other young women to please them on your behalf. As Mrs Warren says: “If I didn’t do it, someone else would.”

Mrs Warren has been so successful in her profession that she has a chain of brothels across Europe. She has done her best for her daughter Vivie by placing her as far away from herself as possible. Mostly in another country. Vivie has grown up shielded from any knowledge of her origins and the source of her mother’s wealth.

Vivie has inherited her mother’s spirit and her brains. We meet her as she has just gained a Cambridge certificate – if she had been a man, it would have been a degree. Set upon starting a career in the law, she demands that her mother tells her the truth. She wants to know who her mother is, who her father is.

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Her mother begins to give herself away when all she can confirm is who the girl’s father isn’t. Vivie can forgive her mother’s past. What she can’t forgive is her present. The brothels are still doing very nicely thank you.

The plot is enriched by one of Mrs Warren’s “friends” Sir George Crofts, actually her business partner, so a pimp, thinking it’s alright to propose to Vivie, and Vivie’s young suitor, a rector’s son, thinking it’s ok to flirt with her mother. Such are the elastic morals of the men.

This is a fine play with some wonderful speeches and juicy, gorgeous characters. Sadly, in this production, which is good enough for all practical purposes but not remarkable, the very best wasn’t drawn from it.

Just because something was written in the 1890s doesn’t mean the acting has to be mannered. The play was taken out and dusted off, rather than embraced as something for right now. Overall, it lacked freshness. Not everyone was in the moment. You got the impression the cast thought this was a story from history. Actually it isn’t. Girls and young women are still powerless today outside our lovely, liberated Europe. This is not a costume drama about trivialities, it just happens to have been written when the dresses were pretty.

If Shaw were writing this now, he wouldn’t have to change much – just put the brothels a bit further away. Today, Mrs Warren would be making her money out of a sweat shop in India or Pakistan – making the cheap clothes we all delight in - and her daughter would want to be a human rights lawyer.

In this production, the pace is fast, the lines are compelling, there are natural performances from Sue Holderness as Mrs Warren, Christopher Timothy as her business partner Sir George Crofts and Christopher Bowen as their mutual friend Praed. But elsewhere there was a lot of acting “acting” and a missed opportunity to really capitalise on the characterisation, comedy and the irony in the plot and the script. It was good but it could have been magnificent.

That said, this was an engaging evening, which drew chuckles from the audience and a production sometimes lacking in power but still very polished.

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