Phil Willmott travels through theatreland...

And enjoys a clash of words and swords in the West End.

A few years ago I worked closely with the academic and TV pundit Germaine Greer on an adaptation of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, that’s the one where the women of Athens go on a sex strike to persuade their men to give up war; so I’ve read the controversy surrounding the west end’s latest comedy, THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES with great interest.

Playwright Joanna Murray-smith claims to have been inspired by a real life incident in which Greer was kidnapped by a student and rescued by her friends. She also claims that this was just a starting point and that the central character, played with effortless comic timing by Eileen Atkins, isn’t G.G. – in fact Murray-Smith claims to be rather upset at the suggestion.

Yeah, right! With pages and pages of free publicity this successful but little known playwright has now become a fifteen minute celebrity herself and it must have all done wonders for tickets sales, particularly as Greer has publicly slammed the project – although this may have carried more weight if she’d actually read or seen the piece.

She’s blatantly and deliberately caricatured here, no matter what writer and producer claim, otherwise why would they have made such an effort to make Atkins look and move as Greer does or littered the dialogue with specific parallels to her actual life and work. Certainly the audience I overheard considered they were attending “the Germaine Greer” play.

I say caricature because anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with Greer or her work, or even her TV appearances, will realise that the strutting, arrogant, insensitive monster Atkins portrays is a very blunt parody baring little resemblance to the warm, witty and generous lady herself.

The director and designer also want you to take it all light heartedly. There’s a bright cartoon set and the evening opens with the sounds of cows mooing. It’s all so silly and lightweight that I doubt anyone portrayed could take offense and the political points are so broadly made they barely warrant detailed consideration. The final twenty minutes of farcical co-incidences and All You Need is Love fortune cookie moralising drain the piece of any credibility as serious comment.

BUT having said all that, it’s great fun. It really is laugh out loud funny – even if some of the humour is so corny it’s virtually music hall – and we’re in the hands of some expert comic players who play the extreme hostage situation with exactly the right amount of manic hysteria.

It’s a very enjoyable ninety minutes of high comedy and pithy one-liners but don’t expect any serious debate about Greer or her feminist legacy.

Attending Female of the Species meant I reluctantly had to miss all the performances of STREET SCENE at the Young Vic so I sent my assistant Ellie Collyer-Bristow to give you her impressions. Here’s what she thought:
“The show depicted a record heat wave on the streets of 1946 New York when the soaring temperatures whisked the tenants of No 346, Lower East Side into a frenzy.

The first half with its multiple character introductions, plots and sub-plots was managed superbly with directness and punch. However Rice’s book lacked substance in the second half and the direction too lacked the energy and imagination required in order to keep us engaged to the very end.

All this aside the production was well worth seeing. Songs like ‘I Got A Marble And A Star’ and ‘What Good Would The Moon Be?’ were wonderful and there were some outstanding performances; particularly Elena Ferrari’s portrayal of the warm and undervalued Mrs Maurrant who foolishly thinks she can escape her troubled marriage by hopping into bed with the milkman, Charlotte Page’s no-nonsense, Mrs Jones, the chief gossiper of the block, and George Longworth’s short fused and highly independent young Willie Maurrant”

Phil Willmott

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