August 27, 2012

Women of note sound warnings on division

August 21, 2012

Top Girls
by Caryl Churchill
State Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
August 21. Tickets $ 25 – $ 59
Bookings : BASS 131 246
Until September 8.

It is almost thirty years to the day since Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s freewheeling play about class, gender and the rise of Thatcherism, first opened at London’s Royal Court – and the question is : how much have things changed and how much have they stayed the same ?

In State Theatre’s spirited revival, director Catherine Fitzgerald ably manages the disparate elements of Churchill’s sometimes demanding text. The long opening dinner party scene reflects the playwright at her most theatrically audacious as management top girl Marlene presides over a surreal colloquium of various women from history and mythology.

Some are paragons of female duty – like Lady Nijo, the 13th century Japanese courtesan and Patient Griselda, the obedient wife from the pages of Boccaccio and Chaucer, others are rebels against the patriarchy like the cross-dressing Pope Joan, the ferocious Dull Gret depicted in the painting by Brueghel, and closer to our own time, the zany 19th century explorer Isabella Bird.

The remainder of the play, set in the naturalistic present of 1982, is the more prosaic tale of two sisters – Joyce, who stays close to home and family duty, and Marlene, who heads to the big smoke – London and up the corporate ladder of the Top Girls Employment Agency.

Designer Mary Moore’s splendid minimalist set (pleasingly lit by Mark Pennington) uses a suspended canopy of ruptured perspex, wittily presenting the glass ceiling which Marlene has broken through but which closes again for the scenes involving Joyce and her low-achieving young daughter Angie.

Fitzgerald and her excellent cast strongly emphasise the energy and warmth of the text – bringing gusto to the dinner party despite the daunting effect of Churchill’s deliberately overlapping dialogue. The vignettes are vivid : Eileen Darley as the eccentric Isabella, Lia Reutens as the coquettish Lady Nijo and Sally Hildyard’s brave-hearted Dull Gret.

In the domestic scenes Antje Guenther’s Angie is touchingly vulnerable and Carissa Lee is also convincing as Kit the kid next door. The employment agency scenes – where the top girls lop down and winnow the employment hopes of the unskilled, inexperienced and un-beautiful – are Churchill at her satiric best.

As the sisters, Marlene and Joyce, Ulli Birve and Eileen Darley memorably capture the particulars of sibling friction and the class division which the text heavily emphasises.

Top Girls is an original and provocative play but it divides audiences. For some it flags its themes too obviously, while others might equally say that thirty years on, the fact that, for many, nothing much has changed, is not nearly obvious enough.

Murray Bramwell

“Women of note sound warnings on division”
The Australian, August 23, 2012, p.15.

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