THEATRE Mrs Warren's Profession Lyric Hammersmith

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
You come back from a long absence to discover that, while you've been away, your little daughter has grown up into Margaret Hilda Roberts. A joyless go-getter, she mounts her soapbox and shrilly inveighs against your way of life which, indeed, has owed little to the dictates of strict Methodism but has, at least, provided the earnings that have paid for her education. This nightmare scenario has not been prompted by Clare Short's recent, infectiously happy experience of discovering a Tory-inclined son. Rather, it's what springs to mind watching Neil Bartlett's very interesting revival of Mrs Warren's Profession, the Shaw play in which a 22-year-old Newnham graduate, Vivie Warren, rejects her mother when she learns that her money is made from a syndicate of brothels.

Mrs Warren is a decidedly peculiar drama. It would, for instance, be easier to approve of Vivie's hard rectitude if she opted for a life that was a complete alternative to her mother's. But in becoming an ambitious actuarial statistician who keeps a personal weather eye on the Stock Exchange, she firmly buys into the very capitalist system that, for Shaw, is the real villain of the piece. It's rather as though a young woman were to reject a parent for having money in battery farms and then go off and make a packet modelling cosmetics tested on live animals. Besides, brothels are not exactly unknown in non-capitalistic societies: the sexual nature of men would reinvent the brothel even in Utopia.

Bartlett's admirably clear and uncluttered production translates the action from 1894 when Mrs Warren was written to 1926 when the 25-year- old ban on the play ended with a private staging. An interpolated wordless prelude showing toffs taking their pleasure in a plush Nineties brothel gives way to the sound of "Poor Little Rich Girl" and a beautifully spare design that presents the world of arts-and-crafty Twenties Haslemere as slide-on flats of black and white period photographs.

Wiping away the patina of respectability that has gathered on once radical works is one of the fortes of the Lyric under Bartlett and here his achievement, at certain moments, was to make me feel that Shaw was writing a clumsy prefiguration of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls. I found myself almost wishing that he'd opened up the play and turned it into a freer theme-and-variations piece that could have shown, say, how some Vivie Warrens of our own day are, ironically enough, having to stoop to prostitution because of declining student grants and the need to buy books no longer obtainable from under- funded, over-subscribed libraries.

With the kind of severely beautiful face that could launch a thousand tracts, Catherine Cusack's lanky, brusque Vivie gives the odd humanising hint of what her stand is costing her. But the Twenties setting has the unfortunate effect of making Maggie Steed's caricatural Mrs Warren, an iffy-vowelled vulgarian in a low-slung fur coat, come across as a grotesque arriviste from a Just William story. In her final wailing, desk gripping confrontation with her daughter, Steed makes you think not of a mother facing rejection but of Mrs Bott on finding that the Outlaws have done something unspeakable to her herbaceous borders.

To Nov 23 (0181-741 2311)

Paul Taylor

Comments