Before this play about the oldest profession begins, we can read, on the scrim, a typically thundering declaration by GBS that includes the line: "The first condition of progress is the removal of censorship." Ah yes, do come down to our local "adult'' book-and-video shop, Mr Shaw – you'll find it most progressive.
If it's unfair to criticise Shaw in the light of a problem he couldn't foresee, it's just as unfair of Peter Hall to present his play as if it hadn't dated since 1893. The conditions for unskilled workers then – 14-hour days for paltry wages – that drove the unmarried "Mrs Warren'' into prostitution do not exist in Britain today. As for Shaw's saying that a middle-class girl out to catch a rich man is only doing what a lower-class whore would if she had the chance – feminism and market forces have long since put the public on his side: no woman now need marry, and no woman who does has a sinecure. There is, however, a singularly contemporary aspect to the play – Mrs Warren's daughter.
Vivie Warren, a Cambridge honours graduate, has, throughout her life, seen her mother only a few days a year. (Mrs Warren spends her time in Europe, where, as Vivie learns to her horror, she supervises the brothels that have made her fortune.) Yet, whether because Shaw had no great interest in children, or because the issue would have been a distraction from his polemic against capitalist hypocrisy, Vivie expresses no resentment or pain at her abandonment.
Under a hearty manner she is brusque and cold, and, although a good-looking, spirited girl, she has no interest in romance, marriage, or motherhood. This detached personality, that of so many children today abandoned or neglected by their parents, could make sense as a shield against insupportable feelings of worthlessness.
But Rebecca Hall's Vivie, though she is attractive and vigorous, and speaks with confident clarity, shows none of the fragility and confusion we now know would afflict a young woman in such circumstances. Her movements also are too loose and too unfeminine for a corseted Victorian, the suddenly out-thrust jaw and the lopsided grin appearing particularly anachronistic.
Brenda Blethyn is even less convincing as the tart who has fought her way up from the slums but is helpless before a daughter who is more plainspoken than she is. Blethyn fails to construct a personality grand enough to support her manner and her enormous hat, and, when the women furiously dissect each other's characters, she is not a mother pitifully out of her depth but a Cockney comic angling for a laugh.
John Gunter's severe, toy-box set for most of the play – a white fence and a single tree against empty blackness – echoes the disconnected nature of the playing. The actors seem to have barely met before coming on stage, and don't seem to want to know each other once there. And why is Praed, the man of decency and culture, so camp that the question about his relations with Mrs Warren is unintentionally absurd? Why is Vivie's suitor, Frank, meant to be a handsome devil, played by a scrawny Bertie Wooster (Laurence Fox)?
Richard Johnson, as a wealthy old baronet, is alone in being both convincing and entertaining in his desiccated lechery and savage revenge.
Booking to 18 January 2003 (0870 901 3356)
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