You’ve heard the phrase, gentle reader, The Show Must Go On; well, the Chichester Festival Theatre took that to new heights last week during their turn to show the Theatre Royal Bath touring production of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. The big selling point for this show is that real-life mother and daughter Caroline and Rose Quentin are playing fictional mother and daughter Mrs Kitty and Miss Vivie Warren. The family likeness and the real-life connection between the two would give extra frisson to Shaw’s sparring exchanges between Kitty and Vivie.
Great in theory; however, sadly, last week Caroline Quentin was indisposed with some horrible lurgy. Good news: she had an understudy. Bad news: the understudy was also off sick. Tuesday’s performance was cancelled, but the cavalry arrived in the form of Charlie Ives, who is the understudy for the part of Vivie, who boldly saw the show through, book unobtrusively in hand, enabling us all to enjoy a great night at the theatre. Yes, we had to suspend disbelief that this young actor was old enough to be Vivie’s mother, but theatre’s all about pretence, isn’t it? And I really commend the Chichester Theatre for giving patrons the option of swapping their seats for a performance later in the week or having a credit or refund. That’s going beyond the call of duty. There’s never a guarantee that any one performer will be able to appear at any one performance. So Bravo to Chichester, and a huge Bravo to Charlie Ives. More of the performances later….
“Shaw, who understood everything save the human heart.” That was the title of the essay I had to write in my first year at university, trying to work out where Shaw’s strengths and weaknesses lie. It is odd how Shaw pussyfoots around the subject of sex; he’s perfectly comfortable with second-hand allusions to the extra-marital how’s your father between Kitty and the Reverend Samuel, because we don’t have to see it. But when it comes to Frank and Vivie, together in front of our noses, he goes all coy and childlike, with Frank’s most explicit suggestion being that they cuddle up together under a pile of leaves. No wonder Vivie’s unimpressed.
The ”human heart” element apart, this remains a thoroughly engrossing and ever relevant play, with Mrs Warren’s actual profession never being explicitly mentioned – but clearly, she’s a madam of a brothel with branches all over Europe and an excellent businesswoman to boot; making enough money to drag herself out of childhood poverty to pay for a fine education for her daughter. That fine education has created a Thoroughly Modern Vivie, who admires her mother for her tenacity and resilience, and can even tolerate knowledge of the profession itself. What she can’t take is that her mother is still active in the business. Rather like Shaw’s treatment of the past liaison between Kitty and the Rev, it’s ok whilst it’s in the past, but not ok when it’s in the present.
There’s an enormously telling speech from the horrendous Sir George Crofts where he reveals to Vivie, “do you remember your Crofts scholarship at Newnham? Well, that was founded by my brother the M.P. He gets his 22 per cent out of a factory with 600 girls in it, and not one of them getting wages enough to live on. How d’ye suppose they manage when they have no family to fall back on? Ask your mother.” Everything has its price, and there’s a price to pay for everything. Prostitution is/was an ugly word, ugly enough to cause the censor to prohibit the public performance of the play for over thirty years. But it pays the bills. And today there are tens of thousands of people in proper jobs but not earning enough to live on. Plus ça change…
David Woodhead has designed an effective but relatively simple set (great for touring) with the first three acts set firmly in the outdoors, with Vivie’s house and the Reverend Samuel’s church both almost comically tiny and bijou, to be replaced in the final act by the very workaday and unglamorous offices where Vivie works. Anthony Banks directs the play with laudable straightforwardness – Shaw’s words do all the talking in this piece.
Sadly, as you will realise, I can’t comment on Caroline Quentin’s performance, but Rose Quentin (who looks remarkably like Caroline did in Men Behaving Badly), is terrific as Vivie, direct, determined, but occasionally letting us see the vulnerability she strives to conceal. Simon Shepherd is excellent as the slimy Crofts, oozing his way around the stage in the hope of attracting Vivie, and the ever-reliable Matthew Cottle is also great as the Reverend who is full of fallibility. I thought Stephen Rahman-Hughes struggled a little to find the role of Praed; it’s not an easy role because Shaw doesn’t give you much to go on. But Peter Losasso is superb as the likeable but wet Frank, a waster and a parasite but such pleasant company.
But in our performance the night belonged to Charlie Ives. Taking on the role of Kitty with such short notice, she threw herself into the play with gusto, giving us all the character’s brassy confidence, mother-from-hell-type bossiness, but still with a great sense of humour and a definite twinkle in her eye; 80% of the time you totally forgot that she wasn’t Caroline Quentin and was reading the script and she definitely held the evening together, rather than her supporting cast holding it together for her – if that make sense. I admit, we were tempted to cancel seeing the show, and taking the theatre’s generous offer of a credit. But I am so glad we didn’t. A very good production of a still very relevant play, it continues its tour through to April 2023.
Production photos by Pamela Raith