Though Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith denies that Margot Mason (Eileen Atkins – pictured) the heroine of her new play The Female of the Species is based on her fellow country woman, Germaine Greer, there is no mistaking the similarities between the two women. For starters, both are rampant feminists with an impressive body of work behind them and, just as Greer was once the victim of a young female stalker who caused her a certain amount of physical distress, Ms Murray-Smith’s play pivots on the unexpected arrival of a young girl student called Molly (Anna Maxwell-Martin) who manacles Margot to her desk.
Molly’s sudden appearance initially proves to be an unwanted distraction for Margot who is in the throes of writer’s block, having only managed to write a couple of hundred words of her latest book.
Molly, or so it would appear, is on a mission of hero-worship. Turns out though, that the reason for her visit is pickled in revenge. Margot’s feminist writings, (such as The Cerebral Vagina and Madame Ovary) have, she claims, ruined her life. So she produces a gun, handcuffs Margot to her desk, and commences a cat-and-mouse game in which the roles of cat and mouse, via a thought-provoking debate on the pros and cons of feminism, are continually changing.
So far so diverting. But with the arrival of Margot’s daughter Tess (Sophie Thompson), the seeds of farce are firmly planted and the play begins to spin out of control. Clearly modelled on Julie Walters’s Mrs. Overall, Tess is the epitome of an exhausted, frazzled overburdened housefrau, married to a man she doesn’t love and who, unable to cope with the incessant demands of her young kids, leaves them ‘home alone’ as she flees the coop.
Next on the scene is Tess’s husband Bryan (Paul Chahidi), a decent enough but boring wimp of a business man who does his best to calm the volatile situation. The fourth visitor to appear is a macho taxi-driver (Con O’Neill) whose wife no longer loves him and who is determined to get in touch with his sensitive side by becoming a new man.
Finally entering the fray is Theo (Sam Kelly), Margot’s agitating gay publisher, who, it turns out, once slept with Margot at a swinging sixties party, and is Tess’s father.
By this point, a strong whiff of desperation has taken over as the pros and cons of feminism are flogged lifeless. The play, which lasts 90 minutes without an interval, seems to be floundering in bad gags and loose ends, while the wonderful Eileen Atkins spends much of the latter half of the play, with very little to say for herself and reacting rather than acting.
The rest of the cast do their best with the material, but apart from some stimulating exchanges between Margot and her captor, and, on occasion, Murray Smith’s satirical and humorous take on everything Germaine Greer stands for, The Female of the Species is, at best, only sporadically entertaining.
Roger Michell directs and the country-house setting by Mark Thompson, is bucolic and colourful.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.
THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES. Vaudeville Theatre, London.