The West End rewinds the clock with “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” the Brenda Blethyn starrer that has arrived just in time to become the celeb vehicle of choice for those who can’t get into Glenn Close, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in their sellout London plays. Those who land at the Strand Theater shouldn’t feel as if they have settled for second best, even if Peter Hall’s production has a somewhat clunky feeling that is of a piece with the clumsy (and, on opening night at least, noisy) scene changes of John Gunter’s notably unelaborate, photograph-led set. However stolid the stagecraft, there’s no denying the innate immediacy and vigor of Shaw’s thoroughly accessible if once seditious play, which puts on trial a mother’s modus vivendi only to allow Mrs. Warren’s disapproving daughter, Vivie, to walk off with the show.
It’s not unusual for Shaw’s century-old drama to be usurped by the actress playing Vivie, a feat that Pamela Reed and Lynn Redgrave in my experience have both managed at different times. But the success of 20-year-old Rebecca Hall in a leading part for which the young Cambridge graduate — here making her West End debut as a young Cambridge graduate — receives below-the-title billing, should please the evening’s director no end. As the name suggests, Hall fille is Sir Peter’s own daughter, and a tall, feisty and clearly able chip off the theatrical block has she turned out to be. (For the record, the West End is positively awash at the moment in Halls. Rebecca’s older brother, Edward, is directing Sean Bean in “Macbeth,” opening next month at the Albery.)
Rebecca’s achievement (presumably guided by her father) is very real, not least because she wisely resists the temptation to turn Vivie into a mere scold. Vivie, after all, comes late to the collectively held knowledge that her mother’s money — and her daughter’s exalted social standing — was made from running brothels, a shame-inducing fact that the conventionally minded child would prefer to forget. Whereas Blethyn’s Mrs. Warren swans about in red, her voice sliding up and down the social scale depending on her levels of stress, Vivie has closed the lid on romance and relationships and any but the most crisply enunciated accent. As for fun, forget it: The moralizing Vivie is far too busy beating a path to chambers in Chancery Lane to let herself be sidetracked by the sweet-natured Frank Gardner (played by Laurence Fox, son of James Fox and here cutting perhaps too emphatic a figure of what the English so wonderfully call gormlessness).
With Shaw laying fearless waste to a hypocrisy that society continues to stink of today — how many newspapers even now take Vivie’s morally crusading line when any reader can see that they are dependent upon the very “vices” they claim to revile — “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” proceeds to relate the tussle for Vivie’s soul, assuming she has one. And so it helps to have a Vivie, however gangly, who is capable of hinting behind the layers of jaw-jutting pragmatism at some kind of embryonic inner life. Rebecca Hall is at her best at the start of the second act in the heated face-off with Sir George Crofts (Richard Johnson), Mrs. Warren’s business partner and — in Johnson’s characteristically cunning performance — low-voiced lech. (As Johnson plays him, Crofts suggests a more comical variant on those deviant, similarly aging judges and pastors of which Ibsen is so fond.)
Ms. Hall holds her own in that encounter and pretty much takes over the climactic one with mama that comes later, a clash of wills ultimately sold short by a broadness from Blethyn that left some of the audience chuckling: Talk about shame! Blethyn last appeared on a London stage six years ago as the distaff lead with the squeezable breasts in Sam Mendes’ defining revival of Alan Bennett’s “Habeas Corpus,” a perf that was simultaneously attuned to the worlds of farce and grief.
As Mrs. Warren, Blethyn is very funny demanding of others that they imagine this free-living entrepreneur “in a cathedral town,” while you can see her registering that Vivie is turning in front of her mother’s eyes into the self-same “drudge” that Mrs. Warren in her own life has been so determined not to be. But there’s another half to Shaw’s play — the subtextual desperation — that Blethyn simply doesn’t register, in the process allowing the stage novice cast as her daughter to energize a perennially popular satire anew.