Review: Mrs Warren’s Profession at the Cheltenham Everyman
- Credit: Archant
Katie Jarvis and Daisy McCorgray went along to the Everyman Theatre’s production of Mrs Warren’s Profession, George Bernard Shaw’s play so scandalous at the time it was banned for thirty years
There’s a father and his son driving along a road when, suddenly, they have a terrible accident. The son is badly injured; the father is killed. The son is rushed into an operating theatre, where a surgeon looks at him and says, “I can’t operate on him; he’s my son.”
We’ll come back to that shortly.
In the meantime: Gosh! How I’d like to have met George Bernard Shaw. Shakespeare would be another of my dream dates – you feel you could have a jolly good laugh with him down the pub (though it goes without saying that his actual jokes just wouldn’t be funny).
But old GBS? Terrifying, I should think. A socialist, vegetarian, non-smoking teetotaller who wrote a whole play – Mrs Warren’s Profession – about prostitution, without once mentioning the word ‘prostitution’.
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The thing is, no matter how superb the production of Mrs Warren today – and the Everyman’s new production is excellent – it’s impossible to capture the squirming, horrified, shocking, disgust the play would have generated when it was first published back in 1898. 1898! Sex hadn’t even been invented then.
And as I sat watching the various accused – the Church, in the form of the Rev Samuel Gardner (Richard Derrington); the Establishment in the form of Sir George Crofts (Christopher Timothy) – I was trying to work out what would shock us today. Corruption or hypocrisy among vicars or MPs? Err, I don’t think so! Is that lack of shock a good thing? Not sure.
So back to the play, which is truly a tale of two halves. It opens in a Victorian garden, full of pink, red and yellow blooms, which colour the stage like a canvas by Ernest Arthur Rowe. This seems, at first sight, a vignette of Victorian rectitude. Vivie Warren (Emily Woodward) is chatting to Praed (Christopher Bowen), her mother’s longstanding friend, who seems faintly taken aback by Vivie’s lack of conventionality… as exemplified by her high degree in maths from Cambridge and an atrociously firm handshake.
When Sir George joins the party, neither of the men exactly breaks out into Our Last Summer, but it is clear that Bernard Shaw had dreamed up the plot to Mamma Mia long before Meryl Streep was a twinkle in her father’s eye. Who exactly is Vivie’s father? Certainly, her mother – the redoubtable Mrs Warren (Sue Holderness) – holds back on the subject in a way she doesn’t seem to hold back on much else in life.
The final cast member is Frank Gardner (Ryan Saunders), Vivie’s beau who, despite charm and good looks, is clearly mainly interested in gambling, money and the barmaid at Redhill.
This cast makes the most of GBS’s witty weave: words, words and more words that warp and weft into a fabric whose pattern becomes clearer with each row. Crofts is, says Frank, “the sort of chap that would take a prize at a dog show”. Or, from Vivie, “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances.”
As the vicar accidentally leans his hand on the bare bottom of a piece of garden statuary, we almost expect his trousers to fall down.
But a farce for not much longer. For what soon becomes obvious, amongst the silks and the roses, is the mildew and the rot: few of this dodgy bunch are at all likeable. Particularly Sir George. As Vivie becomes more and more outraged at their hypocrisy, Sir George delights in telling her how her own degree was funded by his MP brother, “who gets his 22 percent out of a factory with 600 girls in it, and not one of them getting wages enough to live on. How d’ye suppose most of them manage? Ask your mother.”
Her mother’s riches are the profits from a string of brothels.
Shaw was, as far as I can tell, no hypocrite himself. He understood that many women were forced into prostitution by sheer economic necessity. “No normal woman would be a professional prostitute if she could better herself by being respectable…” he rightly said, as the fascinating programme – full of historical fascination – details. Any girl of 13 was able to consent to sexual acts, in the eyes of the law; no girl under eight could testify in court. Kablammo. A paedophile’s charter.
As the play moves on, the roses wither and die, and the stage becomes bleached of colour. Indeed, in the second half, this drama becomes more centred; more focused; more claustrophobic. And as the curtains fall, this has become a drama not just about the moral state of a nation; not just about the suppression of women; not just about ‘men can and women shouldn’t’ but, more simply, about a mother and a daughter.
And the cast drew those meanings out beautifully.
Perhaps the only thing that shocks us today is when a stage becomes a mirror into which we see uncomfortable reflections. Some things don’t change. You don’t steal a loaf of bread if you don’t need it. It’s easier to be law-abiding when you’re middle class, well-educated and well fed. But, hey, it still feels great to judge!
And the answer to the initial teaser? The surgeon, of course, is his mother.
He is arguably our greatest modern playwright, but Shaw’s work is often left underperformed in favour of the plays of Ibsen or Wilde. This summer, Paul Milton, Creative Director of the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, brings one of Bernard Shaw’s most controversial plays to the Cotswold stage before it tours around the country.
Banned for 30 years when it was first written in 1894 due to its frank discussion of the world’s oldest profession, the production still maintains some of that shock factor – even if it doesn’t offend our sensibilities these days.
A drama of ideas, the play is far from the sentimental Victorian picture postcard that Dawn Allsopp’s set, dripping with huge volumes of flowers and trellis, implies. When the strong-willed Vivie, played by the fantastic Emily Woodward, discovers her genteel upbringing and new woman status are the result of Mrs Warren’s unspeakable profession it puts her claim that “fashionable morality is all a pretence” to its most challenging test.
The production boasts a fabulous six-strong cast. Sue Holderness, best known for her role as Marlene in Only Fools and Horses, commands attention as the exquisitely dressed Mrs Warren. While Christopher Timothy’s cane-wielding performance of the sleazy Sir George is the perfect contrast to intelligent Vivie’s no-nonsense approach – breaking down gender stereotypes from the word go, she possesses the strongest handshake on the stage and is the star of the show.
A staunch socialist, Shaw was a radical celebrity of this time – vegetarian, non-smoker and, even more radically, a believer in women’s rights. The play draws attention to the poor working conditions and low wages, particularly for women, of the Victorian age – a point that over 100 years on should be well in the past. But with the living wage, zero hour contracts and equal pay for women still making headlines today, it appears that the play’s thematic concerns are still as relevant. Laughter comes in the opening act, when Praed, played by Christopher Bowen, makes overblown exclamation of “what a monstrous, wicked, rascally system!” but on reflection, you might agree by the end.
The Everyman’s energetic and entertaining production highlights the musicality of the text and proves why Shavian drama continues to endure today. It might be one of Bernard Shaw’s ‘Plays Unpleasant’, but this is a cracking night out.
Catch Mrs Warren’s Profession at The Everyman Theatre, Regent Street until Saturday 27 June.
The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573; www.everymantheatre.org.uk
Want to find out more about the cast of Mrs Warren’s Profession? Read our interview with Sue Holderness and Christopher Timothy.