Top Girls by Caryl Churchill – Trafalgar Studios, London – Review

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I’ve read it, I’ve re-read it, I’ve written assignments on it, referenced it in other assignments, seen it mentioned in almost every module. If you’re a theatre student, there is no escaping Top Girls.

On each re-reading, I’ve grown to appreciate it a bit more, but I’ve always wanted to see it. Act 1 is nigh on impossible to read, as it’s a script of the women at a dinner party, talking over and interjecting each other. I was looking forward to sitting back and watching it as I’ve felt I’ve never really “got” this play due to the scripting in Act 1.

The infamous Act 1. With the eclectic guest list

I was also pleased as this production was to be directed by Max Staffford-Clark who directed the original production all those years ago (yes 1982 is actually quite a long time ago, scary but true!). I was pleasantly surprised to see during the interval he was sitting a row behind me, with his notebook.

As usual my wife joined me on this theatre trip, I was keen to see how she’d respond. She knew nothing of the play and I was also keen to see how as a woman the play would speak to her.

The assembled cast of Top Girls, certainly gave good performances, especially Surrane Jones as Marlene. She was stunning as the 80’s woman, and gave her character a real conviction. Stella Gonet was excellent in her three roles but especially as Joyce in Act 3.

Act 1 was visually striking, as each guest arrived in their period costume, the scene was set for this absurd first Act. I was struck by how humourous it was, with great character acting by Olivia Poulet as Dull Gret. I always wondered if this would actually work or whether it was a clever idea on paper only. Having now seen it I feel it does work. It cleverly shows that the challenges women face are timeless and even though different times and cultures have come up with different solutions the challenges of career, sex, childbearing, violence, marriage and men, are still relevant.

Into Act 2, which having not revisited this play for the last 18 months or so, I’d totally forgotten about! Having dug out my dog-eared script this morning, I was also surprised to see that they’ve changed the order of scenes. I think the version I saw last night got it right, going straight to Angie and Kit playing in their garden, then moving on to the Tops Girls Agency in London.

The attention to detail in the Top Girls agency and home set of Act 3, was brilliant but also a bit scary that my childhood is now a “historical setting” ! Why were electric kettles brown in the 80’s??

Stella Gonet and Suranne Jones

Act 3 was extremely powerful as it shows the stark choices Joyce and Marlene have made. It doesn’t offer any glib solutions or answers and Caryl Churchill sensibly avoids defining whether Joyce or Marlene are “right” in the decisions they’ve made. I have to say I sympathised most with Marlene, wanting to escape the backwaters of East Anglia and make something of her life was easy for me to understand.

On leaving I finally felt like I understood this work properly for the first time. As my wife and I meandered back to Charing Cross and we chatted on the journey back, we said that not much has changed in the last 29 years. Women still get paid less than men in comparable roles (my wife being a case in point!), the choice of career and/or children is still one many women struggle with. Also how do women retain their “womanliness” in the more male dominated careers. As Joyce wryly observes in Act 3, of Margaret Thatcher, “What good ‘s first woman [prime minister] if it’s her?” Just as importantly though my wife enjoyed the play, she thought Act 1 was fun and actually set the scene in an admittedly unusual but effective way. We also enjoyed the office scenes, especially the interviews.

So I’m chuffed I’ve managed to see this, perhaps if I’d seen it first I’d have found its themes and structure more palatable when reading/studying the play. So if you have had to, or are going to be studying this play, get along and see it!

I also have a greater appreciation for Caryl Churchill and her work. I’ve read a good number of her plays, some I love such as Easy Money, others I loathe such as Cloud Nine! Yet her contribution to 20th and 21st century theatre is important and Top Girls will always remain part of the theatrical canon, having now seen it I can say that it rightly deserves to be in there.

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