TOP GIRLS by Caryl Churchill.

25 January 2012

TOP GIRLS by Caryl Churchill.
“Out of Joint and Chichester Festival Theatre Companies at the Oxford Playhouse”

A review by: Julia Gasper. .
Top Girls is a feminist play, with an all-female cast, and it also criticizes the feminist movement. Act I is a surreal dinner-party, a piece of Theatre of the Absurd. Six famous but oddly miscellaneous women of various past centuries arrive to celebrate Marlene’s promotion to Managing Director of the London employment agency Top Girls. A Victorian traveller, a Japanese court concubine, a female Pope, a German soldier, and the entirely fictional Patient Griselda from the pages of Chaucer, all meet in a restaurant and tell their life stories. This is a vision of the Women’s Movement as it was in the 1970s and 80s, when feminists demanded to re-discover women’s history and re-evaluate women’s achievements. The question seemingly posed in the play is, do these women have enough in common to transcend their differences? They talk too much in monologues, not listening to each other or not really understanding much. For me the answer to the question is that it does not matter. Yes, women may have little in common but the transformation of our knowledge of history and the world by discovering them has been entirely positive.
This dinner-party gives a chance for many actresses to wear fun costumes and play enjoyable roles: Esther Ruth Elliott as Pope Joan, spouting Latin; Helen Bradbury as Patient Griselda in tall mediaeval wimple; Alix Dunmore as the sad and stoical Japanese Lady Nijo and Kirsten Hazel Smith as Izabella Bird were entertaining and well-contrasted. The trouble is that Marlene (Caroline Catz) in this first Act tends to be a bit upstaged. She was more commanding in the last Act.
Marlene is presented as a bitch, determined and selfish, wearing a vulgar dress that puts you right off her from the start. She admires Mrs Thatcher, who was Prime Minister when the play was written, a Top Girl paradoxically detested by many feminists because she was a Conservative and wanted nothing to do with dungaree-wearing separatists. The row in the last scene between Marlene and her sister Joyce, who has never left their working-class roots, exposes the class tensions and resentment at a time of cuts, widespread unemployment and miners’ strikes. Marlene as Managing Director ruthlessly makes Howard redundant, just as Mrs Thatcher as Managing Director of the nationalised coal-industry ruthlessly made tens of thousands of miners redundant. Marlene is not just a super-bitch. She has a deep, dark secret like Lady Dedlock in Dickens’ Bleak House. Joyce’s dim and backward daughter, Angie, is really Marlene’s. She palmed the baby off on her sister to bring up, so that she could get on with her high-flying career. Marlene prefers to call Angie her niece and will never acknowledge her, in fact she is visibly embarrassed by her. Joyce, tied to this responsibility, has stayed in a rut and does part-time cleaning jobs.
In Churchill’s picture of the world, success is bad. Successful people are guilty, exploitative and cruel; they take from the world rather than giving to it. She does not consider whether Marlene in her work at the Top Girls Agency has ever been useful to anyone, and done anything good. Don’t those who succeed in business or the professions deserve any admiration? Don’t they create jobs, have new ideas and add anything positive to a balanced picture? A woman who gets to the top has not just won a race against other women: she can provide an inspiring role-model for them, and she can be useful to them in all sorts of other ways. I like to have women doctors to go to, women authors to write books, and women comedians on TV making jokes from my point of view. Yes, the 1980s brought a lot of pain, but what would have happened without Mrs Thatcher as PM – another ten years racked by incessant strikes and hyper-inflation? Ten years after the mines were closed, most of the ex-miners said that they wouldn’t wish to go back to their old life. The shift of the British economy from heavy industry to light and service industries has turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened for women.
In 1982, the play posed the question of what lies in store for poor Angie in the harsh new future. Thirty years later, we can look back and say that she has probably been living comfortably on state benefits somewhere and is far better off than her grandmothers, great-grandmothers or most generations of women before that.
The best thing that could be done with this play, which is now thirty years old and far too long, would be to cut out the middle entirely. The comedy of Act I and the kitchen-sink drama of Act 4 would be enough in themselves. The two acts in between are really pretty dull. Churchill’s attitude seems to be that anyone who has made it has only done so by grinding the faces of others and those who have not made it can blame injustice. That philosophy may actually be unhelpful to those at the bottom of the ladder. A sense of grievance, of being a hopelessly downtrodden class, can deter people from aiming high and making the best of their opportunities.
Julia Gasper.



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