Top Girls

Caryl Churchill
Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse
Liverpool Everyman Theatre

Alicia Eyo and Tala Gouveia in Top Girls Credit: Marc Brenner
Saffron Dey as Angie in Top Girls Credit: Marc Brenner
Lauren Lane as Pope Joan in Top Girls Credit: Marc Brenner

Five women—spanning several centuries of history—walk into a restaurant...

So not the standard set-up for a joke, but a timely revival of Caryl Churchill’s 1980s dissection of Girl Power.

The infamous five are there to celebrate the very modern Marlene’s appointment as managing director of Top Girls employment agency. As they all relax into their surreal dinner date, each of them recounts their lives and, in particular, the stark choices each of them confronted. Among their round-table tales, it would be hard to match that of Pope Joan, the ninth century woman Pontiff, as she vividly recalls going into labour while on a papal procession!

And eventually, even Marlene’s life reveals its own hidden tragedy, with a disclosure that can still draw an audience gasp.

It is this moral conundrum, that the more things change, the more they stay the same, that drives the drama of Top Girls and made it one of the most important plays of the late 20th century.

Everyman director Suba Das, in conjunction with the playwright, gives the story an added relevance by overlaying part of its setting on early-80s Liverpool, and in particular its black community, at a time when the city had witnessed the civil outrage of the Toxteth riots.

Marlene (Tala Gouveia) journeys back to Merseyside to confront her past, and in particular an embittered sister (Alicia Eyo) and a headstrong niece (Saffron Dey), as the play moves seamlessly from its abstract opening into a gritty realism.

All of which allows at least half the cast to double up in their roles, and bring in a series of employment agency vignettes that further underline the difficulties women confront when choosing between career and family.

Suba Das gives his ensemble cast free rein as the humour becomes incisive and brutal. But the central roles are played with admirable restraint, and Dey in particular gives an eye-catching authenticity and physicality to the adolescent Angie.

Every credit also to Elizabeth Twells, standing in for Natalie Thomas in three roles, reading them from the script.

Set and costume designer Ellie Light packs '80s shoulder power into the women wherever possible, while her stage design swishes effortlessly between stylish and kitchen sink.

Churchill’s feminist themes have been revisited in so many other plays in the intervening years that you can only hope there will be some marked change before the next 40-year revival of Top Girls.

Reviewer: David Upton

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