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The Female of the Species

Joanna Murray-Smith
Vaudeville Theatre
(2008)

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The reunion of the writer, director and two of the leading actors from the National Theatre hit Honour should have been a chance to relive old glories. In fact, rather than a sophisticated modern comedy of manners, Joanna Murray-Smith's new play turns out to be an unbelievably unsubtle attack on a feminist author who has every trait of Germaine Greer down to the alliterative name.

Goodness knows what the author of The Female Eunuch (here The Cerebral Vagina) did to her Australian compatriot but, despite a fine performance from Dame Eileen Atkins as a blocked and very frustrated icon, she certainly doesn't come out of this Ben Elton-like farce with too much credit.

The 100 minutes consist of a series of outlandish intruders bursting from cow fields into Margot Mason's minimalist study and then acting as the playwright's mouthpieces by firing off tirades of self-pitying insults at the weary feminist legend.

First out of the traps is Anna Maxwell Martin playing Molly, a dull former student of Margot's who, after symbolically handcuffing her heroine to a writing desk, brandishes a pistol. She then justifies this because her mother killed herself by following some Mason principles after which Molly had herself sterilised in pursuit of others.

Under director Roger Michell, who ensures a mood of hysteria throughout, Sophie Thompson overacts wildly as Margot's manic daughter Tess, a very ordinary, bored housewife. Her incipient madness does not seem justified by her weedy but rather charming and very rich and caring husband Bryan (Paul Chahidi).

The conveyor belt continues with Tess's taxi driver Frank, though quite why he turns up for a rant is unclear. Con O'Neill plays a sensitive cabby who eventually analyses the great writer, freeing her mind to the delight of her gay publisher (Sam Kelly playing Theo). He is a sweetie destined to be the subject of a revelation that is predictable to anybody looking at the cast list. His compensation is the chance to sign up the whole crew of nutters for his already moribund publishing house.

There are some good laughs but this play is not a patch on Honour and it is a surprise that two years after its Australian debut, it has been produced in the West End with a headlining cast.

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Reviewer: Philip Fisher