WOMEN ARE REVOLTING! BUT AGAINST WHAT???
The world is changing. “Women are standing for President, men are exfoliating” Don, an amiable klutz who used to teach but fell back on a quiet life as an ineffective college dean, lets his bored wife Gwen (Emma Fielding) make lists of tasks for him to forget. But into their world erupts old roommate, the glitzily single academic feminist, Cathy (Emilia Fox). Her mother has had a heart attack, and the terror of losing the only person who adores her sparks a longing for a family of her own. Possibly with Don, who was her boyfriend before Gwen stole him.
The mutual lifestyle envy of the two women – with interpositions from a scornful student babysitter, Avery (Shannon Tarbet) and Cathy’s blissfully unreconstructed mother (an artfully understated Polly Adams) lets Gina Gionfriddo meditate on the pitfalls of feminist theory. It is Adams and Tarbet, the old and the young, who get most of the fun as their sharp lines undermine the angsty fretfulness of the fortysomethings.
The long first half is too talky-talky (or was at the last preview), suffering from theory overload. Indeed much of it is Cathy conducting a cultural studies seminar with Gwen and Avery as pupils. It livens up whenever Avery delivers barbs of scorn or Alice potters past with1950’s wisdom about What Men Want. But it is worth hanging on for the second half when the inevitable fling between Don and Cathy sparks some proper action.
Its questions about female destiny are all, of course, unanswerable. The moral, if any, is that despite technical liberation women can’t win at everything, because nobody does. Stay-home mothers can long for brighter lights, while high-flyers in their forties howl, like Cathy, “I want a flawed tired marriage…I am ready to embrace mediocrity and ambivalence!” As for Avery’s liberated generation (Shannon Tarbet is a jewel) they may give their all only to be dumped for a submissive Mormon virgin. Harsh.
There are credibility problems. One is the decision to dress Emilia Fox as Academe-Barbie in eyewateringly tight shiny leggings and four-inch heels; another is that the literary and media success which Gwen envies and Don is dazzled by is – well, a load of cobblers. Her seminars are pretentious feature-page fillers, droning about the influence of porn on Abu Ghraib and how the internet caused 9/11: she makes Camille Paglia look like Aristotle. And when she urges Don to reignite his academic career, her suggestion is catchpenny parasitism: copy a chap who ran a book-group discussing Moby Dick with army veterans. Gawd!
It is hard to believe that Gionfriddo does not know how vapid an academic her character is, being herself a mistress of the far more demanding art of building a good play (she wrote Becky Shaw). But she probably didn’t mean me to end up siding with unambitious Don, “ “jerking off to a computer while the family watch Toy Story”. Poor devil, deserved his fling. Even with a voracious cultural-studies maven in spray-on trousers.
Box Office: 020 7722 9301 to 22 Feb http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com