Although it took years for them to be first performed, in some ways Bernard Shaw's earliest plays now stand up better than certain of his more mature works. Christopher Morahan's current Chichester production of Heartbreak House, for instance, finds eighty years on that the general battle with capitalism has been long since lost, and therefore astutely concentrates on the social comedy of the play rather than its indictments of the system as a whole. Meanwhile in Manchester, the more specific issue that some kinds of money can be dirtier than others continues to ring clear in Helena Kaut-Howson's revival of Mrs Warren's Profession.
Vivie Warren's break with her mother comes not because Kitty had resorted to prostitution to raise herself from a mean no-hope life, but because she misled Vivie into believing that she no longer ran a chain of "private hotels" across Europe; Vivie makes no claim to repay the money spent on her upbringing, but, being established as a young woman of ability and independent mind, repudiates her allowance from the final act on. Rebecca Johnson's Vivie is very much the young Shavian heroine: bright and smilingly sparky, gradually revealing the granite in her backbone. There is also a touch of GBS about Robert Pickavance's Mr Praed, though principally about his beard and eyebrows; in manner he is more a florid, declarative caricature of Lytton Strachey. Gerald Harper has entered upon a phase of his career in which he enjoys playing the ageing bounder; as Mrs Warren's business partner Sir George Croft, revealing the truth about the money to Vivie in an attempt to win her for his wife, he nicely pretends discretion whilst in fact gleefully oozing triumphant innuendo from every pore. Denise Black's Mrs Warren at first suggests a younger, more vigorous relative of Prunella Scales's tesco-commercial character, alternately booming and whooping every line, but lays the foundations for the second-act exchange with Vivie, in which she is blunt and forthright without letting her manner drown out her words, so to speak.
Kaut-Howson plays a straight directorial bat, allowing the comedy its head as appropriate and damping it down efficiently but not oppressively when Shaw switches into dialectic mode. Only at a couple of moments does she add complexities of her own to those of Shaw's arguments, and most effectively right at the curtain call. A shower of pieces of paper flutters down as the actors leave the stage for the last time; curious members of the audience, filing out, pick up (and several pocket) what turn out to be sepia-toned copies of Victorian erotic photographs. You see, implies Kaut-Howson, however you may moralise, the market for services such as Mrs Warren's includes you too.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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