Caryl Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’ is a strange read. Act One’s dinner party of female historical figures can feel contrived as it transitions, non-linear, into the life of our contemporary protagonist, Marlene. This weird bridge between our understanding of the modern woman who emerged in the late 1970’s/early 80’s and these early generations of feminist icons can read like it’s forcing the message- it’s a man’s world- just a little too hard.
So cue New Theatre and director Alice Livingstone’s production of ‘Top Girls’ and suddenly, it doesn’t feel alien at all. I get it. It’s clever. What a strong production this is of Churchill’s play. Women cannot have their cake and eat it too. Ain’t that the truth.
Look, maybe I’m simplifying things but I took my non-theatre going friend to this and she even called me the next day to express how much she enjoyed it, as did I, and I’m still getting over jetlag so this play could have really hurt at almost three hours long.
There are a number of things that make this play work on the stage.
Firstly, Livingstone has taken three semi-disparate sections; fantasy, office and family, and found a way to connect them seamlessly. I love the way they dabble in the absurdity but are delivered with such clarity and belief, until we’re completely immersed in the realism of the play at the end.
I loved the interplay of characters, jumping over each other’s lines, crafting every moment back to their own story or letting the tension rise as we hear the dramatic outcomes of each woman at the dinner party. There is sacrifice merged with self-centredness, the struggle of the female collective, how love is a test but women seem to be the only ones sitting the exam, how love can lead to disaster or you have to put up walls to never let it in. Livingstone is in control of this production and perhaps the use of Fiona Hallenan-Barker as dramaturg has been an excellent choice in helping craft this interpretation.
The second and probably the most significant reason for the production’s success is the cast. What a treat to be given the opportunity to watch an entire female cast who are also seven terrific performers. Julia Billington’s Marlene, standing out in red against this ‘natural world order’ was terrific. She made every intention and relationship feel believable. Bishanyia Vincent’s Lady Nijo captured the humour of this character and took a potentially indulgent comic role and made it natural, endearing and real. Sarah Aubrey’s range of roles and vocal skills were a delight and Maeve MacGregor, Ainslie McGlynn, Claudia Barrie and Cheryl Ward each delivered great portrayals. Apart from some difficulty in understanding Barrie’s ‘Dull Gret’ monologue, which she more than made up for as Angie, this was a very strong ensemble.
Gina Rose Drew’s designs, particular in costume, served to show us this medieval natural order in the vines, greens and imposing stone walls that women are victims of, even now. By then allowing Marlene to opt out of this world through her contrasting costume design and colour scheme, we see her fight to break tradition and all the obstacles in its path, some of her own making. We see the distance between the women in the space grow- a lovely use of stage proxemics in delivering this idea.
Sara Swersky’s lighting also plays with the mood of the play’s early scenes, intimate and shrouded in the shadows of the women who came before us contrasted to the ending’s stark, bright, unforgiving state of what perhaps we are doing to the next generation.
This is by far the strongest play I’ve seen at the New Theatre this year. Whether you’re looking to see a feminist piece or not, this is worth a viewing because above all, it’s a narrative that will engage you.