Saturday, 15 December 2018

Prostitution play fails to get a rise

PROSTITUTION: good or bad thing? We can’t make up our minds even now, so what must

PROSTITUTION: good or bad thing? We can’t make up our minds even now, so what must it have been like when George Bernard Shaw presented

Mrs Warren’s Profession
to the theatre-going public in 1925?

Shaw was a feminist way ahead of his time with this work — he wrote it in 1893 but waited 32 years to stage it. How it would have fared in the late stages of Victoria’s reign is not known, but we can guess.

On the surface,

Mrs Warren’s Profession
is about the morality of making money from paid sex. But seething just beneath the surface is a whole long sermon on hypocrisy.

This is a searching play and deserves good direction and performances. It’s not easy to tease out the emotions as characters lie and deceive one another — each knowing what the other is doing.

And it’s perhaps here that this touring production from the Everyman, Cheltenham, doesn’t work.

These frustrating, unjust issues of women being forced to lie on their backs to make a living whilst being simultaneously feted and socially cast out need a reaction from us, the audience. But the show is unaffecting.

Shaw does go on a bit — he preaches and is didactic, but he can make you laugh and he can tear your heart out as well. The potential is there to give us those attributes in this show, but they are not always realised.

Crucial passages of dialogue are often presented as set-piece deliveries straight to the audience instead of interactions between characters; the actors frequently stand flat to the audience and in straight lines; the cue-biting is so fast that it’s as if the play was being run through as a word rehearsal — no time is allowed to absorb and for the characters to take time to react.

An experienced cast has been assembled for this production. headed by the very able Christopher Timothy, who does a good job as a cynical and libertarian businessman.

He has no worries at all about investing in a series of high class bordellos across Europe — to him it’s just another money-making opportunity.

Of all the characters he should be the most loathsome, but is the most open and honest.

And the one who should be the most appealing, Mrs Warren’s daughter, played energetically by Emily Woodward, turns out to be the coldest of them all.

She is privately and well educated by her mother’s money, then she disowns that mother because of where the money came from. Having her cake and eating it!

At the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday.

Review: Mike Rowbottom

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