Shaw's play was banned in its time, as it exposed uncomfortable truths about how society in 1888 treated women, and how their poor conditions led so many of them into prostitution. Proto-feminist Vivie is shocked to discover her mother took this route out of poverty, but proudly casts her as a strong heroic figure; harder for her to deal with is the fact that Mrs Warren still grows rich as a madam running a number of brothels, and that Vivie's own lifestyle is entirely funded by this. Star turn Felicity Kendal is good but Michael Rudman's production is creakily old-fashioned (an impression not helped by Paul Farnsworth's set, which requires the curtain to go down for a couple of minutes in each scene change, an annoyance you rarely see on the modern stage.) As a result it's not easy to get particularly involved in the story - the strongest section is probably the third act which really hits home the nastier elements of what's going on. And while Lucy Briggs-Owen as Vivie is also pretty good to start with (her scenes opposite Kendal are among the most interesting) by the end her voice had become rather monotonous. While the National has made some energetic attempts to make Shaw feel modern and relevant in recent years, Mrs Warren's Profession is here made into such a period piece that it's easy to see the political message as belonging to the past. The whole thing's rather hard to engage with and a bit dull as a result.
Mrs Warren's Profession by Bernard Shaw is booking until the 19th of June at the Comedy Theatre.