Review: The Female Of The Species

By John Nathan, July 25, 2008

Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2


Eight years ago, the outspoken feminist academic Germaine Greer was held hostage by a female student who intruded into her secluded Essex home.

This is the event that inspired Joanna Murray-Smith to write a comedy in which a famous writer called Margot (Eileen Atkins) is tied up by Molly (Anna Maxwell Martin), a student bearing a grudge and a gun.

Molly has a lot to resent, or thinks she does. Her mother was found dead clutching a copy of Margot's best-known work, The Cerebral Vagina (Greer's best-known work is, of course, called The Female Eunuch).

And so convinced was Molly by Margot's argument that children are a burden to women that she made herself infertile.

As serious as all this sounds, Murray-Smith - and director Roger Michell - have pitched this play as light comedy. Atkins spending most of the evening manacled to her writing desk and Molly distracted by procession of visitors, none of whom are worried about the gun in her hand, and one of whom - Margot's frazzled daughter Tess (Sophie Thompson), who arrives from a nearby village having just escaped the incessant noise of her three young children - suggests that Molly goes ahead and shoots her mother.

You can see why Greer might take exception to Murray-Smith's work. But by far the most offensive thing about this comedy is its '70s British-sitcom tone, its hackneyed jokes and its lazy structure, all of which betray some interesting themes.

Murray-Smith calls to account Margot's serial U-turns on her own ideas and examines how an academic can formulate arguments with no thought about the effect they have on the people who follow them.

She explores the post-feminist condition of women, and men too, represented by Con O'Neill's testosterone-fuelled taxi-driver and Paul Chahidi's new-man husband Bryan - both of them off-the-shelf characters from central casting.

And all this is bound up in a plot where everybody is blasé about Molly's gun and nobody behaves as if they are caught up in a hostage crisis.

You have to believe for a comedy to be funny. Not for one second does it seem that Molly could use her gun in anger - at least not on purpose. Murray-Smith has only managed to turn a true story into an unbelievable work of fiction. (Tel: 0870 890 0511)

    Last updated: 2:44pm, July 24 2008