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A CurtainUp London Review
The Female of the Species
Eileen Atkins, playing the famous feminist Margot Mason, is stalked by her student, Molly (Anna Maxwell-Martin) who blames the unfortunate incidents in her personal life on theories propounded by the university lecturer. Murray-Smith begins her play with a light-hearted comparison of feminist theory and ends it as a full blown farce with other characters thrown into the calamitous mix.
Although I really appreciated Murray-Smith's Honour in its outing at the National Theatre with Atkins and Maxwell-Martin, I enjoyed it less with Diana Rigg and Martin Jarvis in the West End. Atkins is always an absolute joy to watch onstage but I fear without her fascinating performance The Female of the Species might be very disappointing.
In the opening scene, Atkins is seen relaxing at home. In a symbolic homage to the bra burning feminists of the 1960s and 70s and in an act worthy of a contortionist, she manages to remove her bra from under her sweatshirt while on the phone. Atkins is in fine form. Her Margot Mason is self absorbed, conceited and arrogant and yet for all this, tremendously likeable! You can see the leeching quality of the writer as, stuck in a writer's block, Margot uses every incident, every phrase critically to see if it could bring an added dimension or new slant to her overdue book. Anna Maxwell-Martin is the strange, geeky young woman, in an anorak, backpack worn on both shoulders, ungainly and awkward who points out the inconsistencies in Margot's writing and the catalogue of personal disasters which have resulted from Ms Mason's writing.
Molly handcuffs Margot to her desk but Margot's daughter Tess (Sophie Thompson), about whom Margot has been caustic within Tess's earshot, arrives after a crise in her life as housewife and mother. Tess begs Molly to shoot her mother! These three are soon joined by Tess's husband, the ghastly Bryan (Paul Chahidi). This modern day male version of Mrs Malaprop encourages us to think inside the box and talks about the sexual act of performing "Horatio". A taxi driver (Con O'Neill), in touch with his feminine side, who cries in the movies and asks for directions when he is lost, enters angry that he has shared his life with Tess while she was a captive audience in the back of his taxi and she has run off. Finally, Margot's publisher Theo (Sam Kelly) shows up and the plot starts to feel like an anarchic Mamma Mia. "Are we talking feminist, post feminist or post, post feminist?" asks Margot.
The set, the writer's study and book filled sitting room looks out onto the English countryside with cows in the distance. The farce and feminist theory critique sit unhappily with each other and some of the humour seems to miss the mark but that may be an Aussie/Pom cultural mismatch. There is much to smile and groan at but nothing which had me laughing out loud. Bryan, the anti-feminist husband with the positive outlook about mothers caring for their children is effusive but rather dim. Tess expresses her wish to be dominated by a fantasy macho male. To answer a version of the Wife of Bath's question in Chaucer as to what it is that women want men to do more of, Murray-Smith's suggestion is "Foreplay and tax".
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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