This play opens with an unusual dinner party at a restaurant called 'La Prima Donna' (or, roughly translated, 'First Lady'). Marlene is celebrating her promotion to the position of MD in the employment agency where she works. Her guests are all figures from history - most of whom you will probably never have heard of. Pope Joan was a woman who supposedly became Pope and was only found out when she gave birth. Lady Nijo was the concubine of a Japanese emperor and Dull Gret was a character in a painting by Breughel. Also in attendance is Isabella Bird, a traveller who wrote several books about her expeditions, and Patient Griselda from Chaucer's 'The Clerk's tale'.
As the dinner party unfolds, Marlene's guests swill down copious quantities of alcohol and start to recount their life stories. Joan tells us how she was stoned to death when she gave birth to her baby. Patient describes how her husband compelled her to obey his wishes, even when these involved taking away her children and being sent back to her family home. The overall impression is of women who have been maltreated and abused by men.
Things change in the next scene where we meet Marlene's niece, Angie, who is playing with her friend Kit. Angie is older than her friend but her intellectual abilities and emotions do not seem to match her chronological age. Later, Marlene rather bluntly says Angie is 'a bit thick'. That rather brutal diagnostic assessment becomes even more shocking when Marlene's true relationship with Angie is revealed.
Caryl Churchill's play was first produced back in 1982 at the Royal Court. As here, that version was directed by Max Stafford-Clark, who should be pretty familiar now with the play and its message. And there is little to fault in either the acting or directing. Suranne Jones's Marlene is clinically cold and heartless, selfishly focused on her own ambitions and desire to 'get on' in the world of business. In contrast, Stella Gonet's impressive Joyce is a woman bedraggled and ground down by the daily pressures of life. Olivia Poulet makes a very dour and hard-drinking Dull Gret, and then makes a fairly radical transition, taking on the role of the energetic and wilful Angie.
There is one feature which I found a little worrying. In many instances the characters talk over each other's dialogue, even when there does not seem to be any particular reason for doing so, apart from demonstrating their lack of listening skills. Though realistic in many of the situations we witness, it is often difficult to catch what all the characters are saying, and occasionally becomes confusing and even irritating.
The name of the restaurant which forms the setting for the opening scene, is hugely significant. In the early 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was beginning to stamp her authority and unique view of what society should be onto a relatively unsuspecting population. Thatcher's values had implications for feminism, which is what 'Top Girls' focuses on. Essentially, Caryl Churchill questions the impact of Thatcherism on feminism and does so in a highly imaginative and stimulating way, and though the opening scene seems oddly out-of-place initially, it all makes sense in the end once we learn more about Marlene.
"It’s often splendidly funny and inventive, and, by the end, deeply moving, too."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"A classic play in a classic production."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"I found the device of overlapping dialogue followed by a charged silence a bit overdone; but Suranne Jones captures excellently the hidden regrets of the go-getting Marlene."
Michael Billington for The Guardian