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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Mrs. Warren's Profession
Comedy Theatre      Spring 2010

Like every sensible man of my generation, I have been in love with Felicity Kendal for decades. So, even though she occasionally seems to be operating on autopilot in this Shaw revival, a couple of hours spent in her presence is a delight.

Actually, Kendal's role as the titular Mrs. Warren is not the centre of the play, and is not a whole lot more than an extended cameo, with a big scene near the beginning and another near the end.

The play is really about Mrs. Warren's daughter, a model New Woman of a century ago - educated, self-reliant, free-thinking and perhaps a bit too aggressively anti-sentimental to be wholly attractive.

In the course of the play she's going to discover that her mother's profession is the oldest, and her education and independence were paid for by a chain of Continental brothels.

And as her pride in her advanced thinking is somewhat shaken by these revelations, we also discover that Mrs. Warren herself is by far the more bourgeois of the two.

It is that part of Mrs. Warren's character that Felicity Kendal most misses (and that Brenda Blethyn so captured in the last London production eight years ago) - the working class woman who rose to embrace and internalise all the middle class values she was professionally violating, so that she is even more shocked by her daughter's nonconformity than her daughter is by her secrets.

Combine that with a tendency, particularly in her first big scene, to play her rapid emotional changes mechanically and externally, and Kendal - despite her star status and unmaskable magnetism - retreats to a supporting position to Lucy Briggs-Owen's daughter.

Briggs-Owen does give us a fully-developed character, down to a sense of the mental and emotional price she is paying to sustain the cool demeanour and analytical mind she presents to the world.

Indeed, Briggs-Owen's characterisation might even be a bit too strong and rounded, since Shaw occasionally indulges himself by making the character turn one-dimensional for the sake of a momentary joke or debating position.

The supporting characters are all written as cartoons and played that way, though Max Bennett manages to keep us guessing as to just how much of a twit his young man is and David Yelland wisely plays a dirty old man with subtle oiliness rather than vulgarity.

Michael Rudman's direction is far too leisurely and rhythmless, and he must bear some responsibility for Felicity Kendal's undeveloped characterisation.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Mrs Warren's Profession - Comedy Theatre 2010

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