Female of the Species

By Joanna Murray-Smith. Hunters Hill Theatre. Director: Jennifer Willison. The Ryde Club. 17 June – 3 July, 2022

Reviewed : 17 June, 2022 *

Photo : provided

Jennifer Willison finds all the fun as well as the ‘bite’ in her production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s satire on “celebrity feminists”. She keeps the pace fast – from the opening monologue it’s clear Willison is going to make the audience sit up and be entertained.

Catherine Potter delivers that monologue succinctly, introducing Margot Mason as strong, in command, but suffering writer’s block as she attempts to begin yet another dissertation on breaking the ‘feminine mystique’.

Potter is an experienced actor and she finds the cynical conceit and acerbic arrogance that Murray-Smith has hidden in Margot’s telephone conversation with her publisher. She makes Margo self-assured, a little scornful, lying easily about her lack of progress. She shows her as confident, secure in her own space and in her ability to bluff her way through the phone call, yet betraying just a little bit of the nagging self-doubt that is to become intrinsic to the action – and is really the basis of Murray-Smith’s satire.

Photo : supplied

Potter establishes the scene, moving surely on Willison’s bright, contemporary set where white and green predominate and light filters though French windows from the garden outside onto Margo’s desk, the focal point of the action … or inaction as the case may be!

Enter Molly (Bettina Girdler) through the open French window, as Margot, unaware of her visitor, ponders about the title for her book. When Molly suggests “The Female of the Species”, Margot realises she is not alone, and the play really begins.

Molly is an ex-student who has several axes to grind with Margot, and she’s come armed, literally, with handcuffs, chains  … and a gun. She’s determined to make Margot pay for letting her down and letting her mother down, fatally.

Girdler shows the range of emotions that Molly is carrying in a pacy, expressive performance that fuses the exuberance of youth, the anger of criticism, and the pain of grief with well-directed comedic timing. This stormy Molly is the antithesis of Margot’s steely control, and Girdler and Potter play off each other adeptly.

Enter Tess (Tonia Davis), Margot’s daughter, a weary mother, plagued by three noisy children, so much so she has left them alone and sought solace in her mother only to overhear Margot disparaging her life choices to Molly. Davis balances exhaustion with righteous anger, siding with Molly and sustaining the pace that Willison realises is imperative to make the rest of the action work.

Photo : supplied

Murray-Smith has set the scene for her three strong female characters to analyse the many facets of being the ‘female of the species’ – from fame and feminism to marriage and motherhood – and they do so effectively, especially when faced with three males who Murray-Smith craftily creates as caricatures or stereotypes.

Anthony Slavern plays Tess’s bespectacled husband Bryan, Dan Ferris the Italian taxi driver over-anxious to tell his life story and Michael Richmond is Theo, Margo’s publisher and long-time friend. Slavern and Ferris both bounce onto the scene in keeping with the tempo – and make the most of the crafty lines that satirise their characters. Richmond changes the tenor slightly but only momentarily!

The play has been ‘doing the rounds’ since 2006, but it still packs a punch when the satire and comedy are accentuated – as Willison is doing successfully in this production.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening Night