Roll up! Roll up! Hear a Dame of the British Empire say “fuck” repeatedly (and it’s not Judi Dench for once)! Appreciate how Colin Farrell could find 74-year old Eileen Atkins shaggable!! Laugh at the spoof of Germaine Greer !!!

Despite having portrayed the dourest and sourest spinsters in a stream of poke bonnet-dramas from Gosford to Cranford, Eileen Atkins emerges into the french windowed daylight as a svelte sassy and sexy septuagenarian with adroit comic timing in Joanna Murray-Smith’s play The Female of the Species about a sometime-academic sometime-televisual endlessly-published feminist held hostage in her own home by a psychotic fan. The hommage (or should that befemmage?) to Dr Greer is palpable but not unkindly so.

The great thing about this play is it makes you laugh, then it makes you think, then it makes you laugh about what you have been thinking. By holding the entire 20th century discourse on feminism up to the distorted mirror, it put air round every issue which has confronted men and women in their relationships – and exposes the contradictions in values and priorities which seem to have occurred about every twenty years through the century.

This is pictured through the tribulations of the second lead, Anna Maxwell Martin delivering a neurotic but deeply comic “devoted fan” who takes Atkins hostage in the early minutes of a tight 1 hour 40 plot. Maxwell Martin’s character was abandoned by her mother for adoption in following the Atkins/Greer character’s advice to “reject dependency” and died under a suburban train holding a copy of her seminal feminist book The Cerebral Vagina which is where the piece comes closest to reality in its parody of Greer’s deservedly legendaryThe Female Eunuch. That it also comes glancingly close to Anna Karenina is just jam on it.

There are some stunning moments in these two performances, with control occasionally passing from one to the other in a way which is only achievable through impeccable acting and mutual respect of the actors. Just when you think it can’t get any better, enter Sophie Thompson as Atkins’ exhausted child-rearing daughter who is just possibly more keen than the hostage-taker to see her mother shot at point blank range.

People often say that plays “descend into farce” but it’s at this point that The Female of the Species ascends into it, as both the comic potential and the central feminist debate become heightened by the arrival of the new character and her different and deviated perspective. Thomson’s performance is every bit as taut as Maxwell Martin’s and she has some of the best lines.

If anything, the play loses a little power in the final scenes where the plot is resolved, the gun is fired, and two male characters arrive – Thompson’s doting but dull husband and an irrationally cast Con O’Neill (a man who I always think seems to have his arms on backwards, and who still seems to be doing Blood Brothers twenty years after he won the Olivier for it) as a taxi driver with a reactionary dialectical deconstruction of the feminist argument.

Whist willing to speak the profanities, Atkins apparently rejected a scene in which her character masturbates on the edge of a table to which she is handcuffed. We spent a happy half hour trying to decide which American actress should do it on Broadway if Atkins declines. My money’s on Lily Tomlin. And she would.