Top Girls runs at the New Theatre from 9 July – 3 August 2013. By Caryl Churchill, directed by Alice Livingstone.
Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls is a seminal work of feminist theatre. Despite this, I think that is possible that an anti-feminist reading of the play could be advanced, one that condemns all the characters in it for their choices and criticises women who attempt to combine corporate success with a family. Thankfully, New Theatre’s production does not take this direction. This is an excellent production of Churchill’s play – lucid, pointed, and incisive, critical not of the choices its female protagonists make but of the oppressive system that has forced them to make them.
Top Girls follows the story of businesswoman Marlene (Julia Billington, in an outstanding performance). The show famously opens with a dreamlike sequence in which she dines with famous women from history, other women who have broken the mould, shattered the glass ceiling, and pursued success outside the typical mould of marriage and motherhood. The exception to this, Patient Griselda (Ainslie McGlynn), who obeyed her husband in all things, is treated with some derision by the other women, who scoff at and are horrified by her choices. These women are from all different periods and different walks of life, but their struggles and sorrows are surprisingly similar. All are unusual and remarkable for doing things that would not be especially extraordinary for a man, whether becoming a high powered executive like Marlene, travelling the world alone like Isabella Bird (Cheryl Ward), or becoming pope like Joan (Sarah Aubrey). In the next two acts, we see Marlene in the real world – first, the corporate world, where we see her as a hardnosed, ruthless businesswoman; and the second, with her family, whom she is visiting for the first time in six years. We see quite clearly just how much Marlene has had to sacrifice to achieve the success that she has, and how impossible success can be for other women.
The focus the show casts on the unhappiness and loneliness of these women – especially Marlene – is where I think it is possible for an anti-feminist lens to be applied. It would be possible (although certainly not Churchill’s intent) to see Marlene’s unhappiness, as well as the unhappiness of her fellow successful women, as a direct result of her ‘unfeminine’ choices. But no one is allowed to be happy in this play, a fact that this production highlights deftly. Marlene’s foil is her sister Joyce (played fantastically by Sarah Aubrey), who has followed the more conventional path, and is still clearly miserable. This production does a great job of emphasising what I think is the real underlying message of Top Girls: the unhappiness that these women experience is not the fault of the individual women, but because they must live in a culture that is distinctly unfriendly to them. Marlene must make outrageous sacrifices to carve out a space for herself in the professional world, and she is still blithely asked to give up her success by the wife of a male executive who was competing for the same position, because he has children and will not like working for a woman. Likewise, Joyce, abandoned by her husband, is reduced to domestic drudgery to make ends meet. For Angie (Claudia Barrie), whom Joyce has raised, the future seems to be hopeless: she has no hope of a career, nor of finding a man to support her. They exist in a culture that has no space for autonomous women in it, even if these women do their best, like Marlene, to compete with and beat men at their own game.
What hope there is seems to be in sisterhood, in female support networks, and this is another aspect of Churchill’s script that director Alice Livingstone has managed to highlight very well, albeit subtly. There is an inherent sense of competition between many of the women of the play – between the successful women at the dinner in the first act, who regularly talk over one another; between Marlene and the co-workers who have become her employees; and most especially between Marlene and Joyce. But there is a possibility of sisterhood and support. The women at the dinner find common ground. Marlene’s co-workers are friends, gossiping to each other about their lives. And while the tension between Marlene and Joyce is certainly not resolved, the class issues between them an almost insurmountable barrier, there is still a glimmer of hope. “I do love you,” Joyce says to Marlene, reaching out and pressing her hand. In this production, this is an incredibly poignant and powerful moment.
The only real problem I had with this production was the portrayal of Lady Nijo (Bishanyia Vincent) in the first act. The geisha-style makeup, along with the strong accent, ran the risk of turning this character into a racial stereotype. The performance did get more nuanced as the act progressed, but the portrayal of non-white characters by white actors is obviously an area which needs to be navigated with care (if not navigated around altogether).
Otherwise, this production is a fantastic realisation of Churchill’s script. The emphasis on female support networks as important in navigating the oppressive culture is not only a commentary on Thatcherism, which was prevalent at the time Churchill was writing, but remains important as a feminist tenet. This production also offers a powerful argument for an inclusive and intersectional feminism, one that cuts across many boundaries, the most pointed one in this case being class. Alice Livingstone has directed a lucid and intelligent production, abetted by some truly inspired performances. This is definitely a show you should go and see.