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Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Vivie Warren and Nicole Underhay as Mrs Warren in Mrs Warren's Profession.David Cooper

We should have seen this coming: "Original practices" Shaw! It's in vogue these days to stage Shakespeare's plays in the quixotic style known as original practices – attempts to, for example, put on Romeo and Juliet in as close as possible to the performance conditions of Elizabethan England (minus the outbreaks of plague, of course).

Director Eda Holmes has had the rather clever idea of taking the same approach to the works of Bernard Shaw with Mrs Warren's Profession at the Shaw Festival – and why not, as Shaw always, bless him, saw himself as being in direct competition with Shakespeare. Mind, you may not immediately realize that original practices is on the menu when you walk into the Royal George Theatre and are confronted by a group of well-heeled men drinking bourbon and playing on their smartphones.

Here's the background: Written in 1893, Mrs Warren's Profession, a comedy about a young woman who discovers that her mother has paid for her privileged upbringing via prostitution, was banned from professional theatres in the United Kingdom for almost 30 years. The Lord Chamberlain's Examiner of Plays had deemed Shaw's play "immoral and otherwise improper for the stage" – not because it had a sex worker as a main character, but because the sex worker in question was simply not wicked enough.

And so, the Stage Society – a club exempt from the Lord Chamberlain's jurisdiction because it was members-only – produced the premiere privately for two nights at the New Lyric Club in 1902. That's where we find ourselves in Holmes' production – a club in London with leather chairs, crystal decanters and the heady aroma of male privilege. (The design is by Patrick Clark.)

But we are in the year 2016, and the current members of the New Lyric Club are presenting a staged reading of Mrs Warren's Profession as it was originally done. (So the club members are doing original practices, I suppose, not the Shaw Festival.)

Actors Wade Bogert-O'Brien, Thom Marriott, Gray Powell and Shawn Wright are already on stage chatting with the audience, taking selfies and instructing us on what hashtag to use when tweeting about the evening (#oldestprofession). Soon enough, Shaw's play begins in earnest with the men taking on characters – and two women entering the hitherto off-limits confines of the club to star as the dominant female characters.

Vivie Warren (an effectively aloof Jennifer Dzialoszynski) is paid a visit by her long-absent mother Mrs Kitty Warren (a touchingly crass Nicole Underhay) – along with her business partner, Sir George Crofts (Thom Marriott), and an artist named Praed (Gray Powell).

In a conversation after dinner, Vivie demands to know what it is her mother has been keeping secret from her all her life, and Mrs Warren finally explains herself. This is the highlight of the play and production – a two-woman battle of ideas in which upper-class expectations are confronted by lower-class realities. Both Dzialoszynski and Underhay transform, soften and briefly become truly daughter and mother. It is tremendously satisfying here.

The point of Shaw's play having been made before the intermission – that if you really want to eliminate prostitution, then women must have the same opportunities to make a living as men – there's no doubt the second half is a little drier.

There's a layabout love interest for Vivie named Frank (Bogert-O'Brien), whose father is a minister named Samuel Gardner (Wright), who may also be Vivie's father – unless her father is actually Praed or Crofts.

Essentially, it's Mamma Mia! with monologues that dance around the word "prostitution" in the place of ABBA hits.

If the male characters seem pompous and superfluous in Holmes' production, however, perhaps it's further commentary on Shaw's play and its origin.

At the beginning and at the end of her production, Holmes highlights the irony of a text known for its proto-feminism being first performed in a club where women could only enter on special occasions and accompanied by men.

Shaw ignited a conversation about women, not with them – even if he used actresses as the vessel for his words.

This is the first time I've seen the Shaw Festival really wrestle with its namesake's personal contradictions and status as the greatest mansplainer of his time. I only wish Holmes had played more frequently with the frame she set up. There's the seed of a superb production here – but it stays safe.

There's enough to recommend it. I was particularly taken by Dzialoszynski's Vivie, never trying too hard to win our sympathy and only showing real passion in her devotion to her own studies and work as an office clerk.

Mrs Warren's Profession and Uncle Vanya, also on at the Shaw Festival, would make a great double bill. Both plays, written in the 1890s, end on ambiguous, bittersweet notes, with main characters hunched over ledgers, and explore how work both oppresses and liberates. Shaw's views on prostitution may now be the stuff of stuffy op-eds – but that still seems fresh and fascinating.

Mrs Warren's Professsion continues to Oct. 23 (

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