The West Ender
Thursday, February 19, 1998

Brian Peterson

p. 14.

Shaw's deadly wit stands test of time

If the hypocrisy of the world makes you woozy then George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession is an acidic antidote that burns delightfully on the tongue. I must say I entered the Playhouse expecting some futzy parlor piece and director Glynis Leyshon smacked the notion clear out of my head. It's an acute bit of social commentary from one of the most scathing critics in the English language and it's masterfully told.

Mrs. Warren's (Goldie Semple) profession is of course prostitution, though it is only barely alluded to in the speechy but dead-witty text. Her daughter Vivie (Jennifer Clement) has been kept in the dark but now she's bright as a ha'penny nail and ready to take on the world on her own terms as an accountant. She's also got the uncalloused hands of charming layabout Frank (John Ullyat) to caress. He's the son of the local Reverend (William Webster), an old scoundrel who got forced into the church and is extra careful about appearances now. When mother blows into town on one of her cursory inspections, Vivie takes the opportunity to go on the attack about her mother's shady past and we're treated to a blistering account of the grinding poverty that forced her to make the choice between the white lead factory, 14 hour days as a barmaid or a career on her back. She built that career into a chain of houses in Ostend, Brussels and Budapest. Now her "business partner," Sir George (Larry Yachimac) is looking for a relatively unblemished chip off the old block to hang his high profile hook and Vivie fits the bill.

Shaw's script is just brimming over with elegant spite for the hypocrisy of class and appearance. No one is spared his withering scrutiny, particularly the church and the capitalist running dogs in silk waistcoats. It's not hard to see why the play was banned for 30 years when it debuted in 1893. Its politics are no less relevant today. Anybody who notes how the city make a buck licensing escort agencies and massage parlors while harassing streetwalkers and doing squat to prosecute the urban wolves who devour them knows the hypocrisy remains shamefully screwed in place.

The cast is killer too, led by Goldie Semple as the sexy baracuda who refuses to relinquish the reins of her empire even though she is rich beyond reason. Jennifer Clement does the best work I've seen from her as the headstrong Vivie who thinks she can avoid her mother's pitfalls by cutting off emotional contact with everything but hard work. Allan Gray does a great turn as a dandified clothes rack and William Webster is a howl as the easily flustered Reverend who strays compulsively from the path of righteousness. His frantic scrabbling for the moral higher ground with his son John had me hee-hawing.

Pam Johnson has constructed a wonderful set of gardens surrounded by channels of wrought iron gates which mirror society's rigid conventions. The gates get deeper and more unassailable with every scene until Vivie is quite happily caged by her moral convictions. I was pleasantly surprised that it all didn't shoot skyward to reveal the obligatory Playhouse plush parlor which might have sent the well upholstered crowd home thinking about fine furnishings instead of social justice.

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Created: March 21, 1998
Last modified: March 21, 1998

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