When watching a British film of the 1940s or 1950s, you are likely at some point to hear the plummy twang. It is the sound of an actor who, whether through upbringing or self-improvement, normally speaks in Received Pronunciation, but is now called upon to adopt a more proletarian accent and can't quite manage it – Stanley Holloway in Brief Encounter is a prime example. The phenomenon has now been revived in Alan Strachan's touring production of Mrs Warren's Profession, in which Penelope Keith plays an East End girl-turned-international madam without quite getting her mouth around the broadened vowels and glottal stops.
Although it is obvious throughout that the actress has taken the opposite vocal journey to her character, Keith gives an otherwise comfortable performance; a self-confessed vulgarian, her Mrs Warren is brash when called upon, but never downright common. At the real centre of the play, though, is Carolyn Backhouse as her Cambridge-educated daughter Vivie. Backhouse energetically portrays Vivie as a standard Shavian heroine – intelligent, feisty and plain-speaking; although she puts too much of her throat into Vivie's bolder lines, she holds the attention through the young woman's journey of discovering and rejecting her family heritage in order to forge an identity for herself.
Robert Hands, as Vivie's romantic interest Frank Gardner, is on the bland side, although never quite as insipid as his childish lover's talk might suggest. The rest of the cast are cartoons: David Henry as the pompous rector, Denis Lill as the windily selfish baronet, and Charles Kay who appears to be showing some solidarity with Keith's accent by playing Praed as Alastair Sim.
Apart from his sensitive handling of the two central exchanges between Vivie and her mother in Acts Two and Four, Strachan's directorial vision is broad and concerned more with easy entertainment than the questions which Shaw poses. Put it this way: the keynote of the third act is not so much the revelation of Mrs Warren's business arrangements or that Vivie and Frank's relationship may be incestuous, as the fact that these take place amid a great deal of topiary. Judging by conversations overheard in the interval, to some Richmond theatregoers the play was little more than a genealogical whodunnit. There is no suggestion here that the above-the-neck component of the evening is a compulsory part of the package.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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