Once in a rare while, you see a piece of comic theatre so vibrant, so entertaining, and so much fun that you wonder why you wasted your time watching the latest Simon Pegg movie or sitting through hours of Community. The latest NUTS production, Melbourne playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s The Female of the Species, is exactly such a play. It is delightful, edgy, sometimes very sad, and always extremely funny. It will make you think, make you care, and leave you breathless with laughter.
Iconic but ageing feminist Margot Mason (Jessica Symonds) has writer’s block, but this becomes the least of her problems when her home is invaded by a former student, Molly Rivers (Elizabeth Lamb). Molly’s mother abandoned her at birth – and then threw herself under a train – because she had read Margot’s books and took her more extreme ideas very, very seriously. Molly herself has had surgery to ensure she will never conceive a child, in a similar fit of Margot-inspired feminist enthusiasm. Now she is disillusioned, and thinks Margot needs to be held accountable for the tragedies that have occurred when people have changed their lives after reading her books. She handcuffs Margot to her desk, where the unfortunate writer will remain for most of the play, and announces she is going to shoot her. But Molly needs to take a very long time to work up the courage, and in the meantime, other people show up, things get complicated, and hilarity ensues.
The whole thing is classically simple: it’s just one long scene (broken by an interval), set in one room (Margot’s study), and focused entirely on interactions between a small clutch of characters. Margot and Molly are joined in sequence by Margot’s daughter Tess (Molly Jones), who wanders in wearing pyjamas and fluffy bunny slippers to complain about her boring existence as a housewife; Tess’s husband Bryan (Dylan Van Den Berg), who is “in funds,” and who tries to sort things out with useless pronouncements on how we shouldn’t make value judgements, etc; taxi driver Frank (Danny Phillipa), who delivered Tess to Molly’s place but then returns to give everyone a piece of his mind about the state of modern gender relations; and finally Margot’s publisher Theo (Thomas Antioch), who is naturally alarmed at the prospect of his best writer taking a bullet to the head. The six of them argue dazzlingly and quite grippingly about men, women, and feminism, but the play never feels weightily intellectual. It’s about ideas, but they are never in the abstract: they take on meaning and fascination because they are bound up with the problems and desires of the people on the stage.
And the people on the stage are superb. All six actors are hilarious, but special mention must go to Elizabeth Lamb, who is triumphantly engaging and who gives Molly a real, effortless complexity. Jessica Symonds has been in more plays at this uni than this reviewer can count, but this is her first lead role, and she too delivers brilliantly. The play has been finely and thoughtfully directed by Emily Clark, who manages to keep a whirlwind of characters and ideas both coherent and entertaining – and, crucially, makes the whole thing seem like it must have been easy, even when Molly’s gun is changing hands and people are firing dialogue at each other with all the high-wire intensity of an Aaron Sorkin production. It all takes place on a gorgeous set that is piled to the rafters with books. It’s riveting.
It’s not quite perfect: the ending doesn’t hit the right note and feels weak. But that’s a small quibble when such good entertainment has come before. The Female of the Species is showing at 8pm at the ANU Arts Centre, Wednesday through Saturday this week. It’s a bold, moving, and thoroughly enjoyable comedy, and you will not regret seeing it. Not often do you get the chance for a night at the theatre that is as much pure fun as this.
9-12 October, 8pm
ANU Arts Centre
Tickets $10 ANU Students, $15 Adults