“I couldn’t live a woman’s life, I just don’t understand it”
Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls makes the seemingly de rigueur leap from Chichester to London, which so many of their productions seem to achieve, to play a 12 week run at the Trafalgar Studios. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark who also worked on the premiere at the Royal Court, the play looks at the roles that women play and the choices they have to make in order to get there. We were able to take advantage of a preview deal which got us great seats for £15 – thus this is a review of a preview, the show taking nearly 2 weeks to bed into the new venue.
Things open with businesswoman Marlene celebrating her promotion to MD of the Top Girls employment agency by holding a dinner party to which a number of historical figures have been invited. They are women from history, art, literature, who have all achieved great success but at a certain price. We then move to ‘real life’ where we see Marlene’s agency at work, advising women on how to get what jobs they want and the obstacles they will have to overcome. Marlene’s own life is also explored as her own choices are revealed, her relationships with her sister Joyce and the girl Angie whom she looks after.
There’s a preponderance of overlapping dialogue which demands an intimate space. Playing in the Minerva studio, one can see how ideal that would have been but in the cavernous main room of the Trafalgar Studios, even from our decent seats on Row H, too often the speech merges into an indecipherable mass. The overwhelming nature of these vociferous stories all yearning to be heard thus didn’t really work for me here – and with it being such a long (even overlong) scene, it became rather punishing. I’m not sure how much of this could be explained away by ‘but it’s a preview’ claims as this is clearly Churchill’s intent.
Fortunately, the move to (greater) naturalism in the later scenes meant that this wasn’t repeated, the competing voices being reduced to just two and thus becoming an ‘easier’ experience. I mention this because no matter how good piece a writing something is, it is how it works theatrically that is in question here, and it is something that I think perhaps gets lost in the rush to celebrate Churchill as a writer. Truth is, this is a very difficult opening to the play if you’re not sat in the front few rows.
It is however compellingly acted: Suranne Jones cuts a magnetic figure as the strident Marlene, her carefully manufactured accent cutting as sharply as her shoulder pads but unable to fully mask the regret that her family estrangement has caused her. Stella Gonet’s earthy Joyce contrasts strongly as the sister left behind, her decision to remain closer to the family playing out their own consequences in a life full of frustration. And Olivia Poulet finds the gentle humanity of the emotionally troubled Angie, cleverly pre-echoed as her earlier Dull Gret.
There’s a complexity to Churchill’s work which has always kept her at arm’s length for me: her plays inspire admiration but too often leave me feeling alienated and quite often manage both within the same evening. Top Girls is typical in that respect, it got there in the end with its powerful message that the driven pursuit of individual success does not necessarily blaze trails or even ensure personal happiness. But that first scene really is hard work.