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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
TOP GIRLS
at Trafalgar Studios

QUEENS AT THE TABLE
By JOHN NATHAN

  Lisa Kerr and Olivia Poulet/ Ph: John Haynes

There are few things more dated than a play rooted in the politics of the recent past. Contrary to the popular view that Top Girls is a visionary piece of work, this was my first impression of Caryl Churchill’s landmark play, which was first seen at the Royal Court in 1982 but which I first encountered with a later production nearly two decades later. 
 
It is a play celebrated for transcending theatrical conventions. The end is set a year before the beginning, and the first act is generally held to be brilliantly conceived. The setting is a dinner party hosted by the recently promoted Marlene (Suranne Jones), who is celebrating her promotion to the Top Girls employment agency. Marlene’s exotic guests include Pope Joan, who in the Middle Ages became top Christian by disguising herself as a man; Patient Griselda (from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), whose husband tested her loyalty with fake executions of their children; Victorian traveler Isabella Bird; Lady Nijo, a 13th century Japanese courtesan; and Dull Gret, who was painted by Brughel fighting demons in Hell. 
 
Considering the guest list, the conversation is remarkably breezy, even when the women reveal great personal suffering meted out by the men in their lives. From this fantastical opening, we vault to the glossy office reality of Marlene’s workplace – all 1980s shoulder pads and high heels – and the bleak rural realism of Norfolk where Marlene was raised and her financially struggling sister Joyce (Stella Gonet) is raising her backward daughter. 
 
It is here that the politics of Margaret Thatcher – a woman conspicuously absent from the dinner party guest list of female high achievers – takes centre stage, and the sisters end up arguing over the changes being wrought by the country’s top girl. Marlene is all for entrepreneurial individualism, Joyce for preserving a social conscience. In the production I saw a decade ago these arguments appeared dog-eared, and even the first act’s so-called coup de theatre felt more like a neat idea than a leap of the imagination. 
 
But with the play back in the hands of Max Stafford-Clark, its original director, Top Girls is constantly evolving and full of surprises. 
 
Without that inventive dinner party, the play would have faded long ago. Although it begins civilly enough, it ends in alcohol-fuelled defiance of male constraints. And the cast members expertly time their lines to interrupt and overlap one another, adding to the impression of chat evolving into a right brouhaha. 
 
But it is in the more conventional moments where the play reaches its moving and dramatic height; where those speech rhythms are honed to an utterly convincing sibling showdown – the kind where each side doesn’t have to hear the other to know what is being said. Against designer Tim Shortall’s rural sky that darkens to sunset, the scene is masterfully acted by Jones and Gonet. 
 
The arguments are still dog-eared, mind you. But for those who know this country, Churchill has captured a moment when it changed forever. And she has done so with a play that reflects the condition of women for a thousand years. I see that now.

 


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