Top Girls Review 2002

Thursday, 10 January, 2002

This background and Oxford Stage Company production of Caryl Churchill's drama “Top Girls” has arrived at the Aldwych Theatre for a limited run prior to a national UK tour. This new production celebrates the play's 20'' anniversary. It premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 1982.

This fascinating and at times bewildering play is a clever ‘insight’ into women and how they have survived in what traditionally has been seen as a ‘man’s’ world. Two types of women are explored the ‘nurturing self-sacrificing’ woman who one could perceive to be cowardly and weak willed, to the strong independent career driven woman, who could be perceived as self-seeking and hard hearted.

To explore this conundrum of insight into how women are portrayed Caryl Churchill brings together for the first act a famous group of woman, both historical and fictional, to help us see the lives of two ordinary women within an historical context.

Marlene has just been promoted at the “Top Girls” recruitment agency and throws an unusual dinner party to celebrate. The Dinner guests consist of the eccentric Victorian Traveller Isabella Bird Bishop, who between the ages of forty and seventy travelled extensively and was the first woman to be voted a ‘fellow’ of the Royal Geographic Society. The legendry Pope Joan, who some historians claim was actually a woman. Dulle Griet a mythological heroine from a painting by Pieter Brueghel, who travels through hell slaying demons and claiming trophies as her loot. These three women are strong, independent and more than a match for the men who would seek to dominate them. The other two guests are Lady Nijo and Patient Griselda who both seek nothing more than to please their noble husband/master and do not complain at the injustices inflicted upon them but see it as only natural that these things should happen to a woman.

After the first interval we explore these two ‘categories’ of women as we see the relationship between Marlene and her sister Joyce develop in the second and third act. Marlene left home when young to seek a career and better life for herself in London away from her apparently dysfunctional family. Whilst Joyce chose to stay at home to raise her ‘daughter’ Angie and look after her ailing mother. In the end we see both the tragedies and triumphs of women’s lives in a male dominated world in the simple exchange which takes place between these two sisters whilst drinking tea sat at the kitchen table. The kitchen being the appropriate setting to explore the role of women in a male dominated world.

The cast of 7 all perform competently, but Pascale Burgess as the retarded ‘Angie’ and Hattie Ladbury as ‘Marlene’ are particularly outstanding. And Joanna Scanlan is also worth mentioning for her terrific performance as ‘Pope Joan’ and also as ‘Louise’ a straight-laced manager looking for a new position after 21 years in her present job.

Rachel Blues has designed a simple but effective set. The first scene contains only a slowly revolving dinner table. In another scene there is only a washing line in the foreground and bare ‘den’ in the background. There are three desks for the office scene and just a dinner table and small kitchenette for another. These are uncomplicated sets that allow your imagination to fill in the gaps. This is what theatre is all about!!

Notices from the popular press have been good…. CHARLES SPENCER for the DAILY TELEGRAPH says, “Excellent 20th-anniversary revival ….It is an imaginative, inventive, ambitious work.” He goes on to say, “A play that leaves you moved, amused and challenged.” PAUL TAYLOR from THE INDEPENDENT describes the play as a ”timeless masterpiece”. NICHOLAS JE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, “Brilliant anatomy of sex war.”JOHN PETER for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "Riveting production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Times may have changed but Churchill's play impressively endures." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, " I think Top Girls is Churchill’s masterpiece."

Directed competently by Thea Sharrock, who is the Artistic Director of Southwark Playhouse, this is an interesting and thought provoking drama that probably had more bite in 1982 than it does today.

(Darren Dalglish)

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Evening Standard
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