Feminism, food and shoulder pads; Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls might be rooted in the 80s, but its West End revival proves as pertinent as ever.
I have not returned to Top Girls since studying it at school, a process which sucked the fun and enjoyment out of almost every text I read. Having now seen the production performed, I realise that there is fun and enjoyment to be had, but only if audiences are prepared to work hard for it.
Act one in Caryl Churchill’s seminal play is a test of attention, as women from across history and art are brought together at a very 80s dinner party – all tiny portions and copious amounts of over-priced wine – to celebrate the promotion of businesswoman Marlene to Managing Director of a female employment agency.
Each woman has a story to tell – from Stella Gonet’s forceful Scottish globetrotter Isabella Bird to Catherine McCormack’s clothing obsessed geisha Lady Nijo – and like many a dinner party, they tell them across each other, interrupting, overlapping and vying for vocal supremacy like some kind of table-based oral gladiatorial contest.
At times, there is so much going on that you don’t know who to listen too, whose story is the most compelling and who you should allow to fade into the background hum. In effect, it is impressive, but the result is that some of Churchill’s dialogue, so integral to conveying the feeling of sacrifice and gender battle that links the party guests, is lost.
Acts two and three leave the imaginary dinner party behind, taking a more realistic approach to exploring Marlene’s life and the choices she has been forced to make to achieve success in the masculine business world of the 1980s.
Suranne Jones’s Marlene, all power suit and big hair, really is a product of Thatcher’s 80s, her selfish focus and cold emotional vacuum pushing her to the top, but, as with all the female characters in the piece, at a cost. In fact, even Marlene’s rural-living sister Joyce (a lank-haired Gonet), hardly a high flyer by comparison, has paid the price for being female.
Top Girls is rich in feminist and political argument, and though the 80s were a while ago, much of what is explored is still appropriate, not least Marlene’s chilling questioning of why she should worry about those people who cannot find a job, who “won’t make it”. If only she could have glimpsed 30 years into the future. Never has the Euythmics’s Sweet Dreams, which plays as the audience leaves the auditorium, sounded more ominous.