The Female of the species, Vaudeville Theatre, London


That banshee wail you hear when the wind is in the northeast is the sound of the biter bit – Germaine Greer is very, very angry at the author of this play about a sixty-ish feminist scribbler (played by Eileen Atkins). Its action is inspired by the time Greer was, briefly, held hostage by a devotee. And that sound you hear from the Vaudeville is the audience roaring at the best Ayckbourn play Alan Ayckbourn never wrote. Joanna Murray-Smith has expanded the original incident into a chorus of demands for approval, apologies, explanations, relief, compensation, and closure. No one, it seems, can be satisfied, but, at the end, remarkably, all are happy, rolling in love, money, and taramasalata.

Margot Mason is trying to think of a title for her new best-seller when Molly Rivers (Anna Maxwell Martin) enters through the open French window. Wearing cagoule and trainers, her blond hair in a Peter Pan crop, she looks wholesome and harmless until, rooting around in her messy backpack, she comes up with a gun. Margot's books and Margot herself have ruined Molly's life, and she has decided to take her revenge on her bad proxy-mother. But, with the entrance of Margot's real daughter, the comic thriller slides into farce. As more visitors arrive bearing grievances, the basis of their antagonism changes from age to gender to cleverness to class, and alliances collapse, reform, and implode again.

The hairy, aggressive, taxi driver who sends Margot up in flames by calling her "that old lady who's always annoying somebody", ends up her biggest supporter.

At first dismissing him as a garrulous bore, the sex-starved daughter becomes so besotted with him that, when asked who he is, she then says, feelingly, "the Messiah".

The play deals, lightly but pointedly, with many serious questions: Can authors, especially media tarts, exert intellectual power without responsibility? Does true love alter when it alteration finds?

But the emphasis is on the jokes, of which there are many, commenting on personality, language, and culture.

Margot says that the answer to so many questions these days – Where did you meet? Why did you break up? – is "the internet". Sixty years ago, she says acidly, "it would have been 'the war'." Margot's wet son-in-law complains to her: "You always say everything from your point of view." This is supposed to be proof of Bryan's idiocy, but one knows what he means.

There are, however, quite a few lame jokes, especially Bryan's malapropisms; the unconvincing ending is neat without being tidy; and the play sags in the last third, a fault not disguised by Roger Michell's direction. It also seems strange that the star is, literally, sidelined for much of the play, handcuffed to the furniture and reduced to making sarky comments on what everyone else is doing.

But Mark Thompson's elegant set has a good joke of its own: Margot's impressive library, which we see before the play starts, dissolves to reveal her living room, just as all Margot's book-learning melts into uselessness when she is confronted with its squalling, unruly raw material.

All the actors in Michell's production are excellent, though Atkins's Margot seems too brisk and genteel, a touch too Patricia Hodge, with her arched eyebrows and sidelong glances. The show is stolen by Sophie Thompson, as the daughter whose only means of opposing Margot is to be the perfect mother and housewife, even if the effort makes her a wild-eyed, draggle-haired, near-hysterical hag, babbling about cornflake clusters and shabby-chic tissue boxes.

Thompson brings the house down when she announces that she no longer wants to hear anyone with "a very long monologue about a life where nothing's ever turned out right. I don't need to listen to that. I'm living it!"

To 4 October (0844 412 4663;

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