The Female Of The Species @ Vaudeville Theatre, London

cast list
Eileen Atkins
Anna Maxwell Martin
Sophie Thompson
Paul Chahidi
Con O’Neill
Sam Kelly

directed by
Roger Michell
It’s impossible to review Joanna Murray-Smith’s play, first produced in Melbourne in 2006 and now receiving its UK premiere, without mentioning Germaine Greer’s recent outburst of anger.

The play is based on an incident in Greer’s life when a student broke into her house and held her captive. In a recent interview she branded Murray Smith an “insane reactionary” and the play threadbare. Her fury seemed a little full on at first, her comments edged with arrogance, especially as she had declined to see the play, but, having sat through it, it is safe to say Greer needn’t get too worked up about this limp and, yes, rather threadbare, would-be farce.

Eileen Atkins plays Margot Mason a vain, celebrity-courting academic and writer, who once partied with Mick and Marianne on the King’s Road and is prone to making self-mythologizing statements like: There was no one like me, I was outrageous! Mason has turned out numerous feminist tracts over the years, her most famous being The Cerebral Vagina, and her viewpoint, on men and motherhood, has shifted each time. But, with an imminent deadline, she has only managed to write 233 words of her latest book and is worried that she may have said all she has to say.

While she is grappling with writer’s block, an elfin, anoraked girl wanders in through her French doors. Molly, a former student of Mason’s, at first appears friendly, a fan, but then she whips out a gun and handcuffs Mason to her desk (where she remains for much of the rest of the show). Molly has had a troubled life and blames Mason for the various misfortunes that have befallen her. Her mother, an avid reader of Mason, gave her away when she was a baby and later threw herself under the wheels of a train, clutching a copy of The Cerebral Vagina. Molly, having taken Mason’s pronouncements on motherhood as a waste of creative potential to heart, has had herself sterilised only for Mason to dismiss her as talentless on reading some of her essays.

As this twitchy unstable girl debates what to do with her captive she is interrupted by a series of visitors. First Tess, the frazzled, sleep-deprived daughter of Mason arrives on the scene. She has been up all night building balsa wood models for her three young children and something inside her has finally snapped; bringing up three little kids, without much in the way of support from her husband, has driven her over the edge and she has walked out of her house leaving the children at home alone. She is in such a state that when she hears that her mother has called her a loser and a traitor to her potential she is almost happy for Molly to shoot her. The next to arrive is Tess’s dim, tubby, oft-absent husband. He is followed by an emotionally incontinent cabbie, with an impressive handle-bar moustache, who is angry that Tess did not listen to his tale of marital woe when he gave her a lift in his taxi. Finally they are joined by Mason’s pink-faced and linen-suited, gay publisher.

The production (which reunites the writer, director, and, in Anna Maxwell-Martin, one of the stars of Honourat the National Theatre) is episodic in nature with little interaction between characters, instead they each get to say their piece with the hand-cuffed Mason as a sounding board. Arguments about feminism rear their heads, about what women really want from men and about the legacy of the radical 60s on modern women and their expectations, but Murray-Smith never seems overly interested in the debate; the play seems more interested, and indeed is more interesting when it is dealing with, motherhood, with the idea of what a mother should be and the value society places on raising the next generation. The comedy is pitched at the level of farce, but never really achieves it, and, like much mistimed farce, just appears frantic and silly.

Atkins’ performance is decent enough though she is hardly challenged by her caricatured role and Sophie Thompson, usually excellent, wildly overplays, as the drained, exhausted Tess. Maxwell-Martin seems at first to be rehashing her Poppy Shakespeare role but ends up being the most likable presence on stage. Paul Chahidi, Sam Kelly and Con O’Neill all give perfectly solid performances in their roles as three very different men. But no amount of good acting can rescue this unsubtle and forced comedy. There is some strong comic writing, to be fair, a handful of genuinely amusing lines, but they’re not enough to sustain the interest over the 100 minute running time of this disappointing show.

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