Top Girls

Caryl Churchill
Background and Oxford Stage Company

This is billed as the 20th anniversary production of Top Girls, which is now regarded as one of the great plays of the 20th century and has much to recommend it.

It takes on major themes and gives young actresses the chance to play great parts. In the case of the current short run at the Aldwych, it also allows Thea Sharrock, winner of the James Menzies-Kitchen Award for young theatre directors in 2000 the chance to direct on a West End stage.

Churchill sometimes seems to find a single play too small a canvas with which to work. Therefore, given two or three acts she is likely to write a play with distinctive sections and does so in Top Girls.

The first act consists of a dinner party given by twentieth-century headhunter and power dresser, Marlene, played by Hattie Ladbury. This is attended by six women representing stages in the development of (wo)man, each coming from a different century and country.

It is clear that the women have been chosen both for their own inner strength and fortitude and the way in which they have been mistreated by men. With good lighting from Johanna Town within Rachel Blues' minimalist set, the actresses revolve slowly while telling us about the horrors that they have lived through. This is, however, leavened with much humour, particularly from the 9th century Pope Joan (Joanna Scanlan) who seems to get many of the best lines. Should a Pope have an abortion or a child?

Sharrock's directing is particularly good when, as the characters get drunker, they talk across each other. The very witty Elizabeth Berrington as the intrepid explorer, Isabella Bird, and Helen Anderson as Lady Nijo, a sometime emperor's concubine and Buddhist nun, do this to great effect.

After a first interval, we are thrown into the Suffolk countryside to the home of Marlene's backward niece, Angie (Pascale Burgess) and her mother Joyce. This is the early Eighties and the hardships of life are very different from those experienced by the women in the first act. They are nevertheless real. This scene, consisting largely of discussions between two little girls, does, however, slow the rhythm of the play.

The pace soon hots up again as we enter the Top Girls employment agency. This is the fiefdom over which Marlene reigns. We see a series of interviews between the agents and potential employees. In a few witty minutes, it becomes apparent that there is severe prejudice against women in the job market. Churchill is fair in her assessment as she demonstrates that, sometimes, it is the women's own fault that they do not get jobs of which they are worthy.

The scene ends with the usurpation of the unseen Howard, the only man in the company by Marlene, almost certainly a metaphor for the arrival of the dreaded/beloved Margaret Thatcher. The final act, after another interval (somehow giving the play an operatic feel) shows an earlier visit by Marlene to her sister and niece.

This gives Churchill a nice opportunity to debate the merits of the new Prime Minister. Given the perspective of 20 years of history, this is particularly chilling and enlightening. As little Angie says at the end of the play, "frightening".

This is a really excellent play and Thea Sharrock and her young cast make a good fist of it. First time around, Max Stafford Clark had actresses of the calibre of Lindsey Duncan, Gwen Taylor and Deborah Findlay in his cast. It is to be hoped that some of the current generation will follow in their footsteps. In particular, Elizabeth Berrington and master of ceremonies Marlene, Hattie Ladbury, may well be destined to do so.

Thea Sharrock also seems to have a bright future. She is clearly a daring director in that she has chosen to change Caryl Churchill's pairings of parts. It was always intended that this should be a play for seven actresses. However, the way in which the pairings are put together affects the play significantly. In that, as with her earlier Cloud Nine, the modern characters are intended to illuminate the historic, swapping them over can change the balance of the play. In this particular case, there are perhaps some successes and failures. In particular, moving the parts of the sister Joyce and (in Sibyl Fawlty mode) Howard's wife, Mrs Kidd, to the actress who had played Lady Nijo seems inspired.

This play is only on for just over three weeks and this seems a shame as it is strongly recommended as a slice of nostalgia (if that is the right word) for the Thatcher years, a view of the place of women in history and a serious polemical, feminist play.

Top Girls is playing at the Aldwych until 2nd February.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

Are you sure?