Successful plays about ideas tend to be by men. There are exceptions: Yazmina Reza, and Caryl Churchill if you like heavy-handed agitprop. Otherwise Messrs Stoppard, Hare, Frayn etc. have had few female competitors in the West End – until now. With The Female of the Species – a sparkling new comedy at the Vaudeville – Joanna Murray-Smith arguably joins that select band.
An old 1970s joke goes: “How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” Answer: “That’s not funny.” It’s not true that feminists are humourless, especially nowadays. But if you were looking for that steadfast refusal to be amused that was once associated with the women’s movement, you can certainly find it in the reviews that have greeted this play. Many of these reviews are actually by men of a certain age and they suggest that this lightweight but clever play has touched a sensitive generational and cultural nerve.
Of course, this play has achieved instant notoriety by being inspired by an unpleasant incident a few years ago when the writer Germaine Greer was taken prisoner in her own home by a deranged former student. Without seeing the play, Ms Greer has condemned the playwright, a fellow Australian, as an “insane reactionary”. On the evidence of the play at least, both charges are unfair.
It opens in the funky country house sitting room of sixtyish celebrity feminist Margot Mason (Eileen Atkins). The author of bestsellers with titles such as Madame Ovary and The Cerebral Vagina is fielding an anxious phone call from her publisher. As she ponders Clitorism and The Utopian Fallopian as titles for the new book she’s barely started, an awkward young woman comes in through the French doors. She’s Molly (Anna Maxwell Martin), a former student who has read everything Margot has ever published. Molly blames Margot for ruining her life, and she has a gun.