Mrs Warren's Profession, Comedy Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

How relevant to our own day is Mrs Warren's Profession? Well, the women in the audience may not have purchased their clothing with brothel rents, but how much of it was made in China, where other women are treated worse than the prostitutes from which the title character makes her money? Shaw denounced 19th-century England's discreet silence on its secret investments in the sex industry. Our respect, even adulation, for those who openly profit from it would not, I think, strike him as an improvement. But, while the words of this play ring out clearly, in Michael Rudman's tame production the music, or passion, behind them is muted – the whole can be symbolised by the absurdly prissy little triangle that Mrs Warren's daughter, Vivie, carefully strikes, one standing in for an alarm bell.

Felicity Kendal, famous for her ability to bat her eyelashes at the audience even when her back is turned, is a witty choice for an old whore. But she never convinces us that she is Shaw's product of the slums; indeed, the delivery of her big speech, in which she reveals her past to Vivie, has been contrived to conceal her lack of robustness. Slipping in and out of a gravelly bass more reminiscent of The Exorcist than the East End, she chops her lines into fragments and puts the emphasis of each in an unnatural place. Instead of shrieking like a barnyard fowl, she is a nice little bird who has studied Strindberg. For all her admirable vitality and (as far as it goes) honesty, Mrs Warren is as much of a brute as her biggest investor, who thinks he can buy Vivie for his bride. Kendal never shows us the crude exertion of power that is this woman's only expression of the possessiveness of love.

As Crofts, the bad baronet whom Shaw transformed from a melodrama villain into something worse than the original and uncomfortably like us, David Yelland is too clean, too twinkly-wrinkly. At times, he calls to mind Alan Clark, or, rather, a wind-up-toy version; one never smells the rankness of stained sheets, stale port, and cigars. Lucy Briggs-Owen is chillier than she need be as the naive know-all Vivie. She reacts too little to her mother's bombshell, and she signals her smug cleverness with too many twiddly gestures. Eric Carte's vicar also goes in for too much semaphoring. Does he really have to illustrate his remark about writing a sermon with the scribbling-in-the-air gesture of a diner calling for the bill?

To 19 June (0870 060 6622)

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