Written and first produced when UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s influence was at its zenith, British playwright Caryl Churchill’s modern classic explores power, personal sacrifice and class from the perspective of a woman punching her way through the glass ceiling.
At its centre is Marlene, recently promoted to managing director of a leading employment agency. Famously, Churchill opens with a boozy dinner hosted by Marlene (Helen Thomson) for a diverse group of female icons including a 13th century Japanese concubine-turned-nun and Joan, the legendary ninth century female Pope.
Why these women? It would be a spoiler to explain. But if you don’t know the play it’s enough to say that all – Marlene included – have been compelled to trade away something profound in order to find a foothold in the patriarchy.
In boisterous bouts of crosstalk dialogue, the women share parts of their stories. Marlene’s is revealed in the play’s second and third acts, set in her London office and in the Norfolk backwater she ran away from as a teenager.
In the second act, Churchill reveals just some of the obstacles facing women in the workplace. In the third we come to understand what price Marlene has paid for her seat at the big table.
Directed by Imara Savage on a stark set by David Fleischer, this is the funniest, most emotionally persuasive and handsome of the productions of the play I’ve seen – and that includes the now disgraced Max Stafford Clark’s West End revival in 2011.
Savage brings a wealth of experienced talent and some relatively fresh faces to the production and everything about it – the set module manoeuvering; the interstitial blasts of rock and punk; the plunging blackouts – is guillotine-sharp.
Dressed to the nines in 80s power fashion (respectfully recreated by Renée Mulder, who creates compelling costumes spanning a millennium for this production), Thomson is both fierce and funny as Marlene. Her wrangling of her first act guests is exemplary, as is her handling of the bleating wife of a male rival for the top job in the second act. Marlene’s last line – delivered with a hint of a snarl – pins you to your seat.
Everyone else in the cast doubles and triples in contrasting roles providing rich pickings for actors and audience alike.
Kate Box is drolly hilarious as the doughty Scots adventurer Isabella Bird and wrenching as Marlene’s non-achieving, barely coping sister Joyce. The play’s final scene, which has Joyce and Marlene raking over their life choices in a gimcrack little kitchen, is gripping.
Heather Mitchell is wickedly good as Joan and gives us a dignified portrait of anger in Louise, a middle-aged secretary leapfrogged in her career by less competent men.
Contessa Treffone gives a vivid performance as the unsophisticated village teenager Angie, Marlene’s niece, and is an animalistic Dull Gret, one of Marlene’s dinner guests.
Claire Lovering is excellent as Angie’s sidekick Kit and all but stops the show in a second act vignette as Shona, a young woman trying to fake her way into a better job. Paula Arundell and Michelle Lim Davidson are pin-sharp as Marlene’s underlings Nell and Win.
It’s credit to Churchill and this production – and an indictment of our society – that much of Top Girls feels like it could have been written last week.