Felicity Kendal and her good life as a scarlet woman

Mrs Warren's Profession (Richmond Theatre and touring)

Felicity Kendal in Mrs Warren's Profession By George Bernard Shaw

Felicity Kendal in Mrs Warren's Profession By George Bernard Shaw

The kittenish smile of Felicity Kendal has proved highly versatile over the past four decades. From The Good Life on TV to Samuel Beckett's Happy Days on stage, it has been both engaging and deceiving.

And so it is again, as it playfully graces George Bernard Shaw's drama in which Ms Kendal plays a rich Victorian bawd returning to England and her grown-up daughter.

Ms Kendal contrives to be both minxy and headmistressy: if you strayed into one of her brothels, you could imagine how strict she might be.

By today's standards, though, the play is pretty coy. When it was written in 1894, the 'profession' of the title could not be named - and it wasn't performed in England until 1902, and then only in a private members' club.

But the debate over the causes of prostitution is just as emotive today as it was for Shaw, who was incensed at the poverty that drove women to merchandising themselves.

And his claim that prostitutes are no worse than women who marry for money or status remains a controversial one.

Nonetheless, the play still seems more of a drawing-room comedy than a social treatise. Right from the start, Mrs Warren's Cambridge-educated daughter is a feisty mathematician, dismissing stuffy Victorian manners with candid quips.

As this bolshie young lady, intent on establishing her own 'way of life', Lucy Briggs-Owen is impressively forthright. She also makes amusingly short work of David Yelland's dapper but pompous London gent, who is his mother's business associate.

Throughout, Michael Rudman's direction develops Shaw's arguments with subtlety and clarity on Paul Farnsworth's practical but attractive countrygarden set.

The conflict between mother and daughter is also nicely echoed in the battle between Eric Carte, as a gruff old country vicar who has worked with Mrs Warren professionally, and Max Bennett as his wastrel son, who turns out to be less broad-minded than he thought.

Bernard Shaw was often prone to sermonising, but what could have been one his preachiest works is realised here as one of his wittiest. 

Verdict: A very professional performance

Rating: 4 Star Rating

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