Monday, July 21, 2008

The Female Of The Species at the Vaudeville

Sometimes when I go to the theatre I experience a sensation of having arrived late at a party late, all timid and pristine-livered, while everyone else is on their third glass of something or other and well into the ‘happy’ phase of the evening – and therefore operating on totally different level to me.

This was very much how I felt the other evening, while watching Joanna Murray-Smith’s The Female Of The Species. I shall scoot over the fuss kicked up by Germaine Greer (the play is inspired by an event in her life but is, and this important, not based on her in any way). It is about some other prominent feminist writer who has never let concepts like consistency get in the way of creating a stir. A fictional, made-uppy one. Called Margot Mason. Who is played by the wonderful Eileen Atkins (though played is perhaps too strong a word as she has little to do but sit handcuffed to a desk and make the occasional self-regarding pronouncement as the other characters rant at her).

Anyway, the plot goes thusly. Once-famous feminist academic, now burdened with writer’s block, is trying to bash out new book when a be-anoraked student with a pudding bowl hair cut ambles in through her French doors and starts waving a gun about. Disturbed student blames feminist for mother’s abandonment of her and subsequent suicide. Disturbed student blames feminist for her self-inflicted sterilisation after having heeded feminist’s pronouncements on motherhood as the enemy of creativity. (You’re laughing already, aren’t you?) A hostage situation is established – though there’s never any real sense of jeopardy – and handcuffs are employed. Disturbed student is then repeatedly interrupted by the arrival of, first, Tess, Mason’s sleep-deprived daughter (who has been up all night building balsa wood models for her three young children until something inside her snapped and she has stalked out of her house leaving the kids at home alone). Next on the scene is Tess’s ineffectual, oft-absent husband. He is followed by an emotionally incontinent cabbie, with an impressive handle-bar moustache, and finally they are joined by Mason’s pink-faced and linen-suited publisher. Each character arrives and says their piece, about what women want from men, or daughters want from mothers. But as a comedy it’s a complete dud, not farce, not satire, not funny. The writing was ropey, sub-sitcom stuff (that’s not totally true, there were a few nice lines in there, I’m sure I chuckled once or twice, but they were the very definition of diamonds in the rough).

It’s the performances that save this thing from its own turgidity. Atkins is very good, even with so little to work with (her look-no-hands, bourbon-necking made having to endure this almost bearable). Anna Maxwell Martin is also on good form as the unstable student; though she is initially a twitchy irritant, hers is a performance that grows on you, and despite the character outline sketched above, she is quite the most sympathetic of everyone on stage. And while Sophie Thompson rather overdoes her portrait of maternal exhaustion, all the men handle their caricatures competently.

There is actually a nugget or two of something quietly fascinating at the heart of this play, that of the relationship between mother and daughter, and the expectations that come from that bond, be they from parent or child or from society as a whole. You get the feeling that’s what Murray-Smith is really interested in, rather than the legacy of radical feminism.

But while I suspect my position on this production is now quite clear, I was very aware of being in the minority. Most of the audience on the night I attended were laughing. Oh boy, were they laughing. They were laughing so hard their seats shook; they were laughing so hard that my seat shook. Two women in my row were, quite literally, howling. They were so caught up in their own laughter that they even laughed at the bits that (I’m fairly certain, it was quite hard to tell) weren’t even supposed to be funny. Every time someone uttered a word on stage, or even breathed in a way that suggested they were about to speak, these women started gasping and snorting and rocking back and forth with mirth. In fact there was something rather look-at-me about how much they were laughing, it felt as it were for show, not about pleasure.

Fortunately not everyone found it quite so amusing. The softly spoken and charming American gentleman sitting next to me – who turned out to be a producer of some note – appeared to be equally nonplussed by the experience. The whole thing left me baffled and bothered, a feeling compounded when I read the reviews (especially this one). However I was chatting with Phillip Fisher of the British Theatre Guide at the Almeida on Friday and he felt similarly, so at least I am not totally alone at my party,

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