Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2
Opened 16 July, 2008

Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith writes with intelligence and insight about personal, domestic and gender relationships; this West End opening reunites director Roger Michell and actors Eileen Atkins and Anna Maxwell Martin from the NT’s 2003 production of her play Honour. Perhaps she has become impatient with a growing but still limited amount of respect, and gone for critical and commercial broke with this controversial farce. The thing is, it deserves to pay off on both fronts.
The Female Of The Species concerns an old-school feminist author/academic/icon who is held prisoner in her house by a maddened student. Murray-Smith is at pains to deny that her Margot Mason is intended to be Germaine Greer, who suffered a similar incident in 2000. However, Mason occupies the same place in her world that Greer does in ours, her book The Cerebral Vagina is as celebrated as The Female Eunuch, and she even uses a number of Greer-like rhetorical locutions; all that is missing from Atkins’ wonderful central performance is an Anglo-Melbourne accent. Even when Maxwell Martin’s apologetically deranged student Molly pulls a gun, handcuffs and gags her, nothing can stop her. But this basic situation would quickly pall, so additional characters are periodically thrown in: Margot’s daughter, her husband, a taxi driver and finally her publisher. Each gets to blow their own solo on social and gender roles before joining in with the combo.
In some respects, the play feels like Ben Elton with brains: it proves periodically unable to resist a crass gag like malapropising “Toblerone” for “testosterone”. Mostly, though, it’s a sharp satire of some of the extremities proclaimed in feminism’s name and some of the self-aggrandising proclaimers. It strikes me as the kind of play which that one-trick pony Yasmina Reza would love to be able to write (an impression perhaps aided by an elegant set from Reza’s usual London designer Mark Thompson). Sophie Thompson as daughter Tess gets a classic farce moment, about to bop Molly on the head from behind just as the latter asks Margot to recap on “what is it about your daughter that you find so mediocre?” Paul Chahidi, Sam Kelly and the excellent Con O’Neill add the requisite amounts of Toblerone. I don’t wonder that Greer (who has apparently neither seen nor read the play) feels aggrieved: this is a confection. But, at the risk of seeming an instrument of the patriarchy, it’s a marvellous confection.

 Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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