full company

Simon Shepherd as Sir George Crofts, Matthew Cottle as the Rev Sam Gardner, Stephen Rahman-Hughes as Praed, Rose Quentin as Vivie,  Caroline Quentin as Mrs Warren  and Peter Losasso as Frank Gardner. Pictures: Pamela Raith

Mrs Warren’s Profession

Malvern Theatres


Mrs Warren is very much part of the establishment these days, a bit rough and ready, a bit faded around the edges, more glory days behind than ahead of her, but she is enjoying her moment in the sun as managing director of an international hotel chain.

It is a chain which offers, should we say, a more discrete menu of room services of a rather personal nature for the more discerning guest and we first come across her as she arrives to meet her daughter Vivie at a cottage she is staying in Haslemere in the Surrey countryside, south west of London.

Vivie, just graduated in maths from Cambridge, has hardly ever seen her mother and has no idea about what she does or her . . . rather horizontal rise through the ranks to her current managerial position, so it is rather a meeting of strangers as the pair become acquainted.

We have Mrs Kitty Warren, the Mrs added for respectability with no Mr to be found, wanting a mother-daughter relationship, something she sees as her maternal right – especially with old age creeping up. Then there is a daughter with a mother who has been little more than a generous monthly allowance and settled bills. Her mother is a woman she is related to but with little to relate to.

It is a wonderful performance from Caroline Quentin as Kitty and her real-life daughter Rose Quentin. Performances full of asides, glances and looks, and brilliant timing.

kitty and vivie

Heart to heart from mother and daughter with Vivie and Kitty

The pair have the two main and telling scenes, scenes which end both Act 1 and then the play. In the first Mrs Warren tells of the grinding poverty in her childhood, her mother selling rather more than fish to put food on the table, a sister poisoned working in a white lead factory, her slave labour jobs, long hours and low pay and then her long lost sister Lizzie returning . . . well dressed, wealthy, well connected and . . . well paid for the services she offers.  and she offers a partnership in the business Kitty now owns – all so her daughter would not face the same harsh choices she had faced.

Vivie sees that as noble, her mother a champion but that changes in the final act when she comes to despise her mother, not for her choices to rise above crippling poverty, but for what she has become, what she is now.

The daughter has been forced to be strong and independent to survive, and she shows it . . . at least in public. The two duologues being the crux of the play.

Then there is the side show of other characters. There is Stephen Rahman-Hughes as Praed, a middle-aged architect, a friend of Mrs Warren, and crucially not a client. He is a cultured, intellectual. Vivie is now an available young lady in Kitty’s eyes, and you suspect she sees the harmless, well-heeled, respectable, professional Praed as a possibility for a successful marriage - i.e. financially secure and socially acceptable.

Then there is Simon Shepherd as Sir George Crofts, Kitty’s business partner, who despite a 25 year age difference, and an obvious relationship with her mother, sees himself as an ideal husband for Vivie, his only attributes being wealth, from the chain of hotels, or to be more accurate, brothels, and the promise that he would leave her rich when he died which would be long before her.

His smarmy attempt to woo her, almost a business transaction rather than romance, encompassed threats with a hint of blackmail.

Vivie’s real suitor was Frank Gardner, played by Peter Losasso, who adored her with a love as deep as . . . well her bank balance. Frank had no qualifications, no job, no inclination to get one and a future that involved marrying into wealth, with Vivie the current target. A mercenary shallowness we were to discover later.

Finally, there is country rector the Rev Sam Gardner, played by Matthew Cottle, completely broke after financially bailing out son Frank, who comes face to face, unexpectedly with Kitty, stirring memories of a time when he had found love . . . for sale, and bought it.

father and son

Father and son with Fran and Rev Gardner

So, we have an intellectual dreamer, a licentious up-market pimp, a man of God with a past more phew than pew, a wastrel looking for a meal ticket in the guise of a wife, a jolly and rich madame, and a daughter who has been left to her own devices so long she has made independence an art form.

The result is a witty comedy from George Bernard Shaw with some delightful lines, but there are some telling and uncomfortable moments when morality is questioned. It was a morality that saw the play banned by the Lord Chamberlain from public performance for some 32 years.

Written in 1893 the play was first performed in 1902 in a private performance and it could only be shown in members only theatres and clubs until 1925, presumably to protect the lower classes from moral turpitude.

Much the same protect the peasantry reasoning used behind allowing Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be published in hardback but banned in  paperback.

It seems ludicrous in an era when plays such as Rattle of a Simple Man or The Blue Room hardly raise an eyebrow, but it was not just the subject matter, a play involving, even obliquely, brothels and prostitution, it was also Shaw’s defence of prostitution in the play and his reasoning that poverty was the driving force, not lack of morality nor female depravity. Kitty was not debauched; she was struggling to keep body and soul together and without turning to sex work she would have ended up an old woman at 40 if she wasn’t dead by then.

Prostitution was not a choice or ambition, it was her means of escape. Prostitution was a social problem, a claim challenging Victorian morality – the uncomfortable idea that we all might be responsible.

Shaw went even further in the play pointing out that there was a certain hypocrisy in demonising a woman selling sex for money while encouraging young ladies to go and find husbands based on wealth and social standing, the higher in both the better.

It is a claim which still has merit. Cuts in benefits, widespread job losses, high inflation or cost of living all see a rise in sex workers, as is being seen now – Shaw was merely dramatizing the documented evidence.

Meanwhile, back in Haslemere, David Woodhead has produced a fascinating set with a tiny cottage, almost a large dolls house, complete with thatched roof and smoking chimney and a second set, after the interval, of a tiny church set at a strange perspective angle. They are almost cartoon like as if what is happening is not quite real.

All that changes with the only visible scene change as the stage is cleared and a Victorian London office is revealed at the rear of the stage, smoothly sliding forward. No hint or cartoon or jokes here, this is very real and we know that what is about to happen matters.   

The lighting from Lizzie Powell is equally impressive. It is so good that it probably goes unnoticed. In the initial garden scene it looks like sunlight, as night falls the lanterns in the tree light and the lighting slowly changes to moonlight with the sky gradually darkening and the stars starting to shine.Imperceptible changes that help to set time and scene in equal measure.

This is a play with fine performances by the entire cast, plenty of laughs, but with a hard centre and 130 years on still has moments that resonate. Directed by Anthony Banks, Mrs Warren will be entertaining clients in Malvern to 16-04-23.

Roger Clarke


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