Mrs Warren’s Profession at Salisbury Playhouse

image by farrows creativeTHE Cheltenham Everyman production of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession is at Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday 4th July, and is almost sold out.

But judging by the opening night audience, several anticipated an evening of period laughs a la Downton Abbey, and that it certainly is not.

Written in 1893 but not performed until 1925, this is a play that scandalised both society and the Lord Chamberlain. The Mrs Warren of the title is a successful international businesswoman, and her business is prostitution.

Her daughter Vivie has been brought up in various exclusive schools, seeing her mother only for fleeting moments. She has recently graduated with a mathematics degree, and has discovered that she, too, has a liking for work and a drive to support herself.

But it is summer 1893 and mother thinks it’s time for the two women to share a house until her proper young daughter marries. That’s not Vivie’s idea at all.

When mother arrives, ready to introduce her friends, Sir George Crofts and artist Praed, to the young woman, it’s time for straight talking.

It’s hard for modern audiences to comprehend the shock that must have surrounded this play in its early days, particurlary since the often verbose and preachy Shaw so accurately captures the sort of hypocritical attitudes that have not vanished in the 21st century, no matter what Mrs Thatcher might have had you believe.

This is a play about class, about opportunity, about determination – and about the ways we justify what we do. The problem with it is that there isn’t one character to whom you can really warm, and some you want to throw things at.

Paul Milton’s production is beautifully done, and Sue Holderness, best known as Marlene in Only Fools and Horses, perfectly finds the difficult line for Mrs W.  This is a woman whose looks have enabled her to drag herself from poverty into wealth, and found she liked it.

She manages a subtle vocal mechanism that enables her to slip seamlessly between where she is and where she came from.

Vivie has been brought up as a lady, so it’s no wonder that the reality of the source of her mother’s money comes as a shock. Emily Woodward creates a very modern young woman hurled into reality.

Christopher Timothy, known as a loveable TV favourite, plays against type as the venal Crofts, and Ryan Saunders is the idle, childish and selfish Frank.

It’s a hard and nasty play, pulling no punches as it focusses on social inequality and hypocritical judgements. This production brings an important play about women’s rights, set in Victorian times, to a new audience who can ask themselves how much things have really changed.



Photographs by Farrows Creative

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