As a leading feminist and author of The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer has helped put the feistiness into many modern-day women and (as some dare to call them) grrrls. However, the collective liberation of ladies went a bit pear-shaped last week when the veteran media don verbally laid into Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith (hitherto best known for Honour). Greer angrily called her an "insane reactionary", apparently without even reading her new West End play, The Female of the Species.
This piece is loosely based on an assault that Greer survived in 2000. She was held hostage by an obsessed undergraduate who walked into her house and went crazy, tying her up. Greer was saved by the arrival of some friends, but the episode must have been terrifying.
Now, what Murray-Smith has written is a farce, lampooning the likes of Greer, and I must say I was uncomfortable at first with Roger Michell's production. Turning such an incident into light entertainment feels dishonourable, even if the celebrity author of The Cerebral Vagina, named Margot Mason, and her assailant, Molly, are clearly fictional – played by Eileen Atkins and Anna Maxwell Martin.
That said, Greer certainly isn't above satire and presumably she wouldn't want to reintroduce censorship. It is, in fact, the limited authenticity that is problematic at first. Atkins' performance looks more stagey than satirically sharp in the opening scene as she hollers at her agent on the phone while wrestling her bra off under her top and hurling it away with a grimace. Maxwell Martin's dweeby Molly also hovers awkwardly at the off, on the threshold of caricature, twitching in her anorak, furiously confused by feminist theories. And when Sophie Thompson rushes in as Margot's messed-up daughter – also having a breakdown – she and Maxwell Martin seem excessively similar dowdy nutters: both round-shouldered as chimps.
That said, farce often takes a while to warm up and that is the case here. The absurdity escalates, moving away from Greer's experience. Thompson's Tess becomes hilarious when it emerges she is a toddler-harassed mother, working herself up into a tizz about having to make cornflake clusters. The pitch of her hysteria rises like an operatic aria. Paul Chahidi fetches up next as her husband, Bryan. Showing no inclination to unchain Margot, he is a teasingly ambiguous New Man, making politically correct speeches while throwing sly, smarmy glances at Molly.
The denouement is lame, but at its height this is a very funny evening and a comedy of ideas. It makes you dwell – retrospectively – on how profoundly confused we are now about what women really want.
The ladies in Zorro are putting their foot down. That's to say the most thrilling moments in this new West End musical – scored by the Gipsy Kings and choreographed by the celebrated flamenco dancer Rafael Amargo – are its bouts of furious stamping.
Starring Matt Rawle as the titular masked crusader of 19th-century California, this swashbuckling tale centres around the imperial Spanish pueblo of Los Angeles. This outpost is a remarkably attractive little fortress: sun-bleached stockades in rising tiers (designed by Tom Piper). However, life's no beach for its inhabitants as they find themselves under the dastardly military rule of Adam Levy's Ramon. This usurper has fooled everyone that the benign old governor is dead. It's amazing what you can do with a coffin full of rocks. And now he's taken to hanging the poor peasants in droves. No wonder they're kicking up a fuss.
The en masse choreography in the market square is exhilaratingly thunderous with fast-rapping zapateado heels. It's like a fantastic syncopated stampede, accompanied by angry shouts and whirling gypsy skirts. The chorus's more grief-stricken ululating songs – going back to flamenco's Spanish-Moorish roots – are spellbinding, too. This is musical with more authenticity and artistic calibre than usual.
Unfortunately, it's like an endless game of snakes and ladders. Just when you think the production values have shot upmarket, the quality comes slithering down to risible tat. Perhaps the hero's trademark Z – which, indeed, descends from the flies at one point – is one giant slippery slope. Zorraaargh. The sword fights are scintillating, yet the flying around on ropes is – erm – embarrassingly ropey. Stephen Clark's book and lyrics make little attempt to rescue anyone from the realms of pulp fiction, with only a few sparks of tongue-in-cheek wit. The acting is uneven and Emma Williams is rather a drip as Zorro's sweetheart Luisa. No matter though, the multi-talented Rawle exudes terrific charismatic swish.
Finally, a psychotic saddo is loitering in Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton's 1930s tale of obsession and alcoholism, seedy digs and murderously bitter misogyny. This is an admirable fringe revival, at once claustrophobic and sensually fluid, directed by Gemma Fairlie. Fidelis Morgan's adaptation plays particularly disturbing games with doppelgängers as Matthew Flynn's nerdy yet menacing George fantasises about an actress on the skids called Netta. As if he's seeing double, she is simultaneously played by two actresses: husky, sorrowful Caroline Faber and brittle Clare Calbraith. They prowl round him like a mocking floozy and an imaginary friend, half-encouraging him to kill. Scarily twisted.
'The Female of the Species' (0870 040 0046) to 4 Oct; 'Zorro' (0870 040 0046) to 10 Jan; 'Hangover Square' (0844 847 1652) to 2 Aug