Top Girls. Out of Joint and Chichester Festival Theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 10-03-12

Helen Bradbury as Patient Griselda. Photo by John Haynes.

Caryl Churchill is one of our very best writers for the stage. I think that there are two main reasons for this. First, her writing is always theatrical and full of ideas that you will not find anywhere else. This should be an obvious first goal for a dramatist but it is surprisingly hard to achieve. Secondly, when she writes dialogue she understands that most of the time people don’t listen to each other. She is a writer who is always searching for something new and coming up with what you least expect, but those two characteristics make her work distinctive, fresh and challenging. It isn’t always easy to read on the page, but since that isn’t what it was meant for this is probably as good a recommendation as any.

Her play Top Girls, written in 1982 at the height of Thatcherism, has been given a new production by its original director Max Stafford Clark. We are so lucky. It is one of her best plays, widely regarded as a classic now, and the first act is one of the finest pieces of stage writing of the twentieth century. This is a big thing to say but I do mean it and I’m not the only one to say it. The reaction at the end, when I saw it at a packed matinee at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, was extraordinary. A few beats of silence, a rush of applause, followed by a hum of excited chatter as lit up faces turned to each other to talk. None of them were suggesting ice creams.

Alix Dunmore as Lady Nijo. Photo by John Haynes.

Alix Dunmore as Lady Nijo. Photo by John Haynes.

So what was it that got us all talking? It’s a dinner party. Marlene, (Caroline Catz) a pushy, power dressing eighties woman has organised a get together at La Prima Donna restaurant to celebrate her promotion at the employment agency where she works. From that simple starting point, as we meet Marlene’s guests, Caryl Churchill conjures up a surreal, moving and very funny meditation on women and their treatment throughout history. They are women from different centuries and cultures but they greet each other and talk as intimate friends, sharing their experiences, talking over each other, ignoring each other, upstaging each other, and empathising with each other, as the meal descends (or perhaps is elevated) into a kind of drunken celebratory chaos. Dull Gret, (Victoria Gee) conjured out of a Breughel painting eats, steals and grunts her way through the meal. Lady Nijo, (Alix Dunsmore) the Japanese courtesan of an Emperor who then became a Buddhist nun, is still locked into the world of the court, clothes and status in spite of this, and looking for understanding and release from her pain. Izabella Bird, (Kirsten Hazel Smith) the Victorian lady traveller fights to get a word in edgeways to tell her story which seems very astonishing and dramatic to her but pales when set against those of the other guests. Patient Griselda, (Helen Bradbury)  the long suffering shamefully treated wife from Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale radiates a goodness and tolerance in the face of  injustice which is looked down on by some of the others but understood very well by Lady Nijo. Pope Joan, (Esther Ruth Elliott) has the most astonishing (and true) story. She masqueraded as a man in order to make her way through the hierarchy of the Catholic church and become pope, before becoming pregnant by her chamberlain, giving birth during a papal procession and being stoned to death as a punishment. She is kindly but remains aloof from the others, happy to refrain from trying to evangelise given that she is a heresy herself. It’s all quite astonishing, both in the original idea and in its execution and visually stunning to watch.

Kirsten Hazel Smith and Caroline Catz in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls Picture: Robert Workman

The other acts can’t match that kind of bravura, but there is little wonder in that. We are shown Marlene’s work life and her family, including the daughter that she abandoned and dumped on her sister. We see how she got to be where she is, how empty it has turned out to be for her, and the heavy price that both she and those around her have had to pay for it. Her daughter Angie is particularly well drawn. She is an eager, likable, not very bright, lump of a girl without much of a future, who has only a younger friend who she plays with to support her. The scene between the two of them is a very delicate and truthful portrait of the intensity and cruelty of early teenage female friendship. I found the office scenes less gripping, possibly because things have moved on for the better, at least to some extent, since they were written. What they show, however wrong, is common knowledge now, but the vicious, loving confrontation between the two sisters at the end of the play still strikes at the heart and the way that an awkward, limited young girl has become trapped without hope or opportunities, having being let down by a mother who doesn’t care about her, still resonates powerfully. The historical women suffered shockingly, mostly at the hands of men, but we are left wondering whether modern day women really have it so good after all.

The production is beautifully acted, lit and designed. That first scene requires visual flair, great characterisation, surefooted technical ability and faultless timing and the seven actresses ( not forgetting Emmy Sainsbury as the constantly busy waitress) playing it clearly relished the challenge and pulled it off faultlessly. It was a joy to watch and I am quite sure that none of them will ever forget how lucky they were to have the chance to play it. The later scenes were also beautifully done and very well characterised. I felt for all of them except Marlene, and thankfully Caroline Catz played Marlene truthfully without going overboard and making her into a monster. You felt that she was going to have a very hard lesson to learn one day, and while it might well destroy the woman that we were seeing in front of us when it happened, she wasn’t quite ready to learn it yet.

This is a great play, it really is, and I am thankful that I got the chance to see Max Stafford Clark’s second production of it, having missed the first. If ever a play needed a great director this one does, one who is able to help a very talented cast showcase a great, but very challenging, play and make the writing the star.

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