Magazine article The Spectator

A Woman of Substance

Magazine article The Spectator

A Woman of Substance

Article excerpt

Felicity Kendal tells a surprised Mary Wakefield of her admiration for Mrs Warren

From the moment Mrs Warren bustles in halfway through Act I of Mrs Warren's Profession, she's clearly an excellent sort. 'A genial and presentable old blackguard of a woman, ' says George Bernard Shaw fondly of his heroine. And she is a heroine, though she's also a brothel-keeper as compromised as St Joan is righteous.

I've only read the play, not seen it, but I'm also very fond of Mrs Warren, and, as I walk to the Comedy Theatre to meet Felicity Kendal, I begin to worry. Kendal playing Mrs Warren in the West End? The more I think about it, the less suitable it seems. Surely Felicity is winsome and twee; Mrs W is a businesslike old pimp. How can that work? Would Mrs Warren even want Kendal on her books, I wonder, as I climb the carpeted stairs to the theatre's upper balcony. But as soon as I see her, I know I've made a mistake.

There's Felicity, tiny in tight-black leather, standing hand on hip. She's at the very top of a vertiginous swoop of seats, glancing down at me across rows F to D, a shrewd look, not unfriendly but appraising. It's just the sort of once-over Mrs Warren might give a girl, and I realise I've committed the elementary error of confusing Kendal with her character in The Good Life.

A few minutes later we're sitting knee to knee in row A. Felicity talks about the play while I make a mental list of all the various ways in which she differs from Barbara Good. She's not kittenish at all, at least not with me: she's poised, self-assured, immaculate. She's 63 now, but looks a decade younger. Would Barbara G have had Botox? I think not. Kendal, I remember, has converted to Judaism. Barbara would have made a better Mormon.

'No, you're right, I have nothing in common with Barbara Good, ' says Felicity Kendal, tapping one blood-red nail (highquality acrylic) on a leather knee. Does it get on your nerves when people assume you're like her? 'Not really, because if you get the job right, people should assume you're like the character.' So it's a compliment? 'Yes, ' she says, 'though I'm glad I didn't go on to play parts like that for the rest of my life. I've played hardly any very good women since. Do you know what I mean?' I do. Felicity means that The Good Life ended in 1978, and that she's done three decades' worth of TV and theatre since. She's played a feminist in Solo and a florist in The Mistress; she's starred in a run of Tom Stoppard's best plays, from On the Razzle in 1981, to the dazzling Arcadia in 1993 and the less dazzling Indian Ink. In 2008 she was excellent as Florence, the permanently pie-eyed mother in Noel Coward's The Vortex. She is quite up to Mrs Warren.

'Mrs Warren is amazing, ' says Kendal;

'Shaw was amazing to invent her. He created a woman, a prostitute, who's completely honest about her situation in a world of hypocrisy where everyone is going: shush, shush - it's alright as long as nobody knows.

Mrs Warren just can't be arsed to keep it a secret. She has made a choice, and that is to make a life for herself, to make money for herself, on her own terms. She's a feminist as well as a prostitute!'

Does Kendal identify with Mrs Warren?

Actually, I don't quite dare ask that, but I secretly think it's true. Not because she's a tart, obviously, but because, like Mrs Warren, Kendal's life has been dominated by her career, and she's often chosen to put work first. …

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