Top Girls

Caryl Churchill
A Chichester Festival Theatre Production co-produced by Out of Joint
Chichester Festival Theatre

Top Girls production photo

I had unfortunately never managed to see Top Girls previously and it was a mistake to come under-prepared. Knowing only that it concerns a dinner party with the guests comprising influential women through the ages, I assumed that all would be revealed in performance, but I have to admit to initially being thoroughly confused. The women talking over each other in conversation and argument did nothing to help comprehension, although that is exactly what happens in animated discussion. Act Two which switches time, place and characters seemed to have no relevance to the plot, and it was some time before it all came together for me and made sense.

Regarded as one of the top plays of the twentieth century, Top Girls addresses issues of women’s place in society and the workplace and stresses the difficulty of ‘having it all’, and the sacrifices women have always had to make to fit into a man’s world. Is it possible to achieve true success in a career without sacrificing femininity and suppressing all maternal instincts? Debates and arguments have been raging for years and there seems to be no real answer.

The play’s opening dinner party is to celebrate the promotion of Marlene to the role of Managing Director in a recruitment agency, and the guests are women who, in their time, have made their mark on the world and taken their place in it as they deemed fit. There is the cross-dressing Pope Joan (Lucy Briers) who surprised her followers, and herself, by producing a baby, resulting in her being stoned to death. She seemed unconcerned that the baby suffered the same fate. Intrepid Victorian traveller Isabella Bird (Stella Gonet) regarded a child and family as a hindrance, and Olivia Poulet’s Dull Gret, with armour, helmet and sword, is crude and mannish, consuming enormous quantities of food and wine while filling her basket with anything to hand, yet her final harrowing sobs seem to be for her ten children.

Lady Nijo (Catherine McCormack), a thirteenth century Japanese concubine who regards clothes as the ultimate status symbol, is the most forceful in her debate; whatever any other woman has had she has also experienced - only worse, and gentle, patient Griselda (Laura Elphinstone) accepts and defends her husband’s need for obedience even when he cruelly takes away her babies. Addressing serious issues, which don’t seem to have changed all that much over the years, the animated debate is nevertheless full of humour. The waitress (Lisa Kerr) is silent.

These seven women take sixteen parts between them, switching expertly and credibly from one character to another, Suranne Jones as Marlene being the only constant presence holding the threads together.

Max Stafford-Clark, who also directed its inaugural production in 1982, drives the show along at a cracking pace, with scene changes swift and unobtrusive and the imaginative set provided by Tim Shortall, together with Jason Taylor’s expressive lighting, secures for each scene the perfect dressing, from the expensive restaurant La Prima Donna to the worn country kitchen of Marlene’s sister Joyce’s abode and taking in the streamlined modern workplace where Marlene exhibits her ruthless ambition. Costumes too are perfectly pitched depictions suited to the characters.

Marlene has followed a career path callously abandoning her child to be brought up by sister Joyce, and the child, imaginative yet retarded, shows signs of being abandoned in life too. No wonder she is frightened!

There are no answers here - only questions. The debate goes on!

"Top Girls" runs until 16th July.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its transfer to Trafalgar Studios

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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