Julien Galipeau as Frank Gardner and Erin Ormond as Mrs. Kitty Warren in Chemainus Theatre Festival’s production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Review: ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ offers audiences a choice, and a lot to chew on

George Bernard Shaw 19th century morality play still rings true in 2019

When you go to a play by George Bernard Shaw, you never expect to hear such phrases as: “a delicious romp”, “a light hearted look at relationships”, or “a cute piece of fluff”. Shaw expects you to pack your thinking cap to the show as well as your ticket.

The subject here is women making money by prostitution, and it was hugely controversial when the play was first published in 1898. Decades went by before Mrs. Warren’s Profession was staged.

However, some of the subject matter is still really timely; there are still closed doors when women look for financial success in life and business, and they have to find their own keys. That Mrs. Warren and her daughter, Vivie, are both trying to do so in vastly different ways, is the keystone of this play.

You’ll see a superb cast: some actors had more to do than others, but all were great in their roles.

All these characters are very well drawn by Shaw. The spoken details we hear are true, and, backed up by good direction, great costuming and set design, really flesh out the production.

This is a very talky play. But it’s GBS after all; no one would expect less. However, it is also very funny in places. Listen carefully for them. This is not Jeeves and Wooster: there’s no slapstick here, even if the era chosen is the 1920s.

So, who do we see and what do we learn about them?

Mrs Warren (Erin Ormond) is a street smart business woman, who manages to talk her daughter around to liking her by leaving out a big chunk of her background story. There’s no doubt Mrs. Warren can be a charmer. but she’s not a nice lady; and although she talks briefly about her girls, it’s highly unlikely she ever paid for an education for even one of them, except the one she birthed.

Sir George Crofts (Declan O’Reilly) is a thug, and a pimp. Given to violence, he likes to carry a vicious walking stick and is all too ready to swing it. He decides, after little more than a glance at Vivie, Mrs. Warren’s daughter, that he wants a little piece of that. We learn later that he’s also Mrs. Warren’s business partner in a canny investment, which nets him 35 per cent interest.

Mr. Praed (Tariq Leslie) an architect obsessed with beauty, is a friend of the present day Mrs. Warren, but we are left to wonder how much he really knows about her, and how far back his association with her goes.

Frank Gardner (Julien Galipeau) is a lightweight layabout, who will probably end up marrying a rich widow so she can look after him financially. At the opening of the play, he is obviously Vivie’s beau. His ooey-cooey relationship with her seems odd today but probably was spot on when the play was written. However, his obvious disinclination to find any kind of work is a dark cloud over their possible marriage, particularly when he learns his love is willing to turn her back on her mother’s money in order to make her own way in the world.

Rev. Samuel Gardner (Stephen Aberle) is Frank’s father, a clergyman who kicked up his heels in his youth. Part of him remembers those days fondly, and he’s frequently around when fun takes the stage in this play. The rector despises his son, Frank as a good-for-nothing, and we, the audience, tend to agree.

Vivie Warren (Martha Ansfield-Scrase), Mrs. Warren’s daughter, is a ramrod, breezy product of an English boarding school for girls, and then Cambridge. With a handshake of steel, she thinks she knows the score on society but is in for many, many surprises.

Determined to make her own way, Vivie finds erstwhile friends desert her at the end, and even her mother walks away without a backward look.

At first, the girl, freshly graduated from Cambridge and ready to take up an accounting job in London, feels she’s on top of the world. She holds herself back a little from Mrs. Warren, not knowing what to think of her.

We learn, in a touching scene between Vivie and her mother, how the older woman, faced as a girl with few and nasty options for her future, chose prostitution. She gives her daughter some strongly argued reasons for this, and by the end of her flight into oratory, Vivie is convinced that an unsavoury past has been overcome and is now behind her.

The audience leaves for an intermission stroll happy in the knowledge that the two women can now bravely face the world together.

However, the idea that Mrs Warren might be hard done by is difficult to sustain when we learn that she’s doing very well, thank you, with ‘houses’ all over Europe. (And, considering that when this was written, Vienna was the capital of an empire and crawling with wealthy aristocrats, and Brussels was awash in well-heeled diplomats and their like, a good brothel could be very successful indeed.) The woman may have fought her way up, but it’s clear by the second half of the play that she knows how the society system works and she’s sailing smoothly through the shoals, with her friend, George, to help keep the sharks at bay in deeper waters.

Vivie is more to be pitied. She’s full of ideals but discovers that her pure, unsullied earlier life has been paid for by a constant stream of young girls who will never have her chances. She learns it from Sir George, who, while he might seem a bumbler at first, is soon revealed as mean-spirited indeed.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession can be seen both as a tragedy and a comedy but it’s hard to determine exactly where the frown should turn upside down. Audiences are given the chance to decide for themselves.

Before the play, on opening night, theatre manager Randy Huber said this production was already 75 per cent sold out by last Friday night. So, get on the phone and book those seats now because the show only runs to Oct. 5.

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