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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Female of the Species
Vaudeville Theatre Summer-Autumn 2008


This new play from Australian Joanna Murray-Smith is being promoted as a serious drama about feminism, but it is actually a Ray Cooney-style farce in disguise. Recognise it as that, enjoy it as that, and you'll have a thoroughly satisfying 100 minutes.

This is the sort of farce in which a half-dozen characters are always talking at cross purposes, to everyone's confusion; in which serious matters (like the fact that one is trying to murder another) keep getting lost as everyone is distracted by trivia; in which whenever energy threatens to flag, someone new comes rushing in to ratchet up the complications and the comedy.

And yes, it is vaguely about feminism, and the problems of post- and post-post-feminists in trying to follow or live up to the dictates of the 1970s generation. But that's just what Alfred Hitchcock called the McGuffin, the arbitrary thing-everybody-is-chasing that gets the plot going. It's not really where the play is.

Eileen Atkins plays a Greer-like feminist icon (author of, among others, Madame Ovary and The Vagina Cookbook), who has her home invaded by Anna Maxwell Martin's gun-toting young acolyte, who has been driven bonkers by trying to keep up with the ever-changing dictates (Reject sex. No, use sex. Don't be trapped by marriage. No, your highest calling is making babies.) of her idol.

But before the girl can pull the trigger, in rushes the writer's daughter (Sophie Thompson), driven to near-breakdown by the pressures of the wife-and-motherhood she chose in rebellion against her mother, and the two younger women find, to their surprise, that they are natural allies against the common foe.

And then, in rapid succession, along come the daughter's husband (Paul Chahidi), whose attempts to be sympathetic and understanding are limited by the fact that he is a bear of little brain; an angry cabdriver (Con O'Neill), who tried being a New Man and now argues for a return to the days of simple sexism; and the writer's publisher (Sam Kelly), who can't think past the stageful of potential best-sellers he sees before him.

The fun lies in watching each new arrival confuse the thinking of those before, in seeing how each is so wrapped up in his or her own emotional agenda that they hardly acknowledge the existence of the others (except as someone who, for the moment, seems to agree with them), and how everybody keeps forgetting or ignoring the fact that there's a loaded gun being waved about, even when the gun changes hands a few times.

And of course the fun lies in watching the actors. If I have one small reservation about Roger Michell's snappy direction, it is that he occasionally allows each of his cast to seem to be in a different play, Atkins acting with the laid-back dry wit of Noel Coward, Maxwell Martin letting her character think she's in a serious melodrama, Thompson playing a broad caricature out of a TV sitcom, and so forth. But the fact is that they all work comically, and the jumble of styles winds up adding to the fun.

Certainly Eileen Atkins is, as always, a delight to watch. She is one of the best listeners I have ever seen onstage, and there are frequent sequences in which others are doing all the talking and yet you'll find yourself watching her as, with the slightest of expression changes, she registers not only the intellectual's boredom with the half-baked thinking going on but also the writer's pain whenever anyone slips into cliché or fuzzy language.

And O K, you might actually find some thought-provoking things being said about the ways feminism has created almost as many problems for both men and women as it solved. But please don't hold that against this play, whose main purpose and accomplishment is to make you laugh a lot.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Female of the Species - Vaudeville 2008