Top Girls
By Caryl Churchill
Oxford Playhouse, 16-20.04.02


At Oxford on their first stop after the West End, Backyard theatre company present an enjoyable performance of a play first performed in 1982, at what proved to be the beginning of the Thatcher years. Top Girls is a play of three self contained sections, each of which deals with the problems posed by a particular brand of feminism and individualism being vaunted at this time. This is an adventurous structure, and I felt on some occasions in the second act that Churchill had lost control of the message and narrative of the play. However, the third act was a revelation in the way loose ends were tied up and events brought full circle to an unsatisfactory, but necessary, conclusion.

Churchill is wise to begin the play in the surreal way that she does, placing it outside time and context, as this allows her to break down audience preconceptions and present our cleared minds with more recognisable material in Acts Two and Three, with greater freedom to manipulate audience sympathies. The first act is a surreal meal in a restaurant hosted by the central character, employment agency MD Marlene. The guests are distinctive female figures from the past, from stories and from works of art: these include Pope Joan (the only female Pope), Chaucer's 'Patient Griselda' and Dull Gret (from a Pieter Brueghel painting of 1562) who chat about their diverse experiences, seemingly to no purpose. The progressive role of women in the workplace is dealt with in Act Two when Marlene's promotion to MD causes problems with a male colleague who feels he should have been given the job. Our enlightened hackles rise as we watch his long-suffering wife go and plead his hurt pride to Marlene, and our sympathies lie strongly with the latter, the audience giving a silent cheer as the wife is shown the door. However, in Act Two the play is brought sharply back into historical focus in a confrontational scene, possibly the best-acted of the play, which shows Marlene's success for what it really is: a triumph of Thatcherist individualism. We realise what it was we had previously been applauding. Deciding to be an 'individual' is all very well, but as people rarely occur naturally in this state, becoming one must leave some residue. In this case the residue consists of a deserted provincial family. And what happens when your daughter is the embodiment of all whom Thatcher would necessarily fail?

Churchill displays most effectively the crucial divisions in society which would occur as a result of such individualism, and without being anti-feminist she shows the Thatcher method to be a necessarily flawed way of progressing society. A very perceptive play, especially for its time, and well-acted on the whole although there was a tendency to caricature a little too much in the first act, and the attempts at regional accents in Act Two were rather confusing. Well worth going to see.

Alison Ireland, 16.04.02