In a week where Germaine Greer has loomed over the production like the angry clouds of a British summer sky, The Female Of The Species faced critics who would actually watch the play last night.
One can see why Greer, if she had taken time to read the play, could have been forgiven for her concern. Joanna Murray Smith’s comedy takes its inspiration from the disturbing incident in which Greer was held captive by a student, and Eileen Atkins plays the lead character and feminist icon Margot Mason as an arrogant, self-important, intellectual provocateur dressed drably from head to foot. The connections are easy to make, though unintended.
From there, however, things get a little farcical, in a good way. Shunned student Molly (Anna Maxwell Martin) arrives toting a gun to take her revenge on the woman whose writing wrecked her life – her mother made her choices based on the famous feminist’s changing views. It is like Frankenstein’s monster – though with a West Country accent, smock-dress and without bolts through its neck returning to take revenge on its creator.
With Mason handcuffed to her desk, a host of other acquaintances arrive, all of whose lives have been affected by her writing, and grievances are aired without too much thought for the gun in Molly’s hand.
Sophie Thompson revels in the role of Mason’s daughter Tess, who has let her mother down by just becoming a housewife. Desperately trying to be the good mother she never had, she has run herself into the ground and growls, screams and whimpers her way through the show, possibly closer to snapping than her gun-toting captor.
Tess’s husband Brian, played by Paul Chahidi, is a cliché-spouting, grey suit-wearing, soup-making, ever-sympathetic new man, whose lack of old-fashioned masculinity has left Tess in despair. Taxi driver Frank (Con O’Neill), by contrast, has been pushed too far and is about to return to his caveman roots. The only captive not to be affected negatively by the content of Mason’s books, is publisher Theo (a suitably camp Sam Kelly), whose financial success revolves around Mason’s feminist tracts.
While the interplay between the variously wronged characters and Murray Smith’s script are full of wit and verve, tough questions about the effects of feminism lurk behind the laughter. Have the right ends been achieved? Who were the casualties along the way? Does any of that matter and do the exponents of theory really believe the actuality of their ideas? Molly’s appearance at her fallen idol’s house, gun in hand, is surely a symbol of ultimate female empowerment, yet not in the way Mason ever imagined and not to a very effective end.