Caryl Churchill's Top Girls with its characters all women was in 1982 pretty daring in form – overlapping dialogue, especially in the opening dinner-party scene, and with its back-to-front chronology – and the title is almost naturally meant ironically. All these years later, though the specific instances of discrimination have been superseded by new examples, #MeToo of course means issues of women and power are still on the table, so any question mark about the play's subject matter being dated does not arise.
Top Girls focuses on women's losing their humanity in order to exercise power in a man's world. It does so primarily by means of the character Marlene, competently played by Katie Cook, who features on the imaginative Vogue-pastiche programme cover, having relinquished a home and family to strive to succeed in the world of business. Act I's action takes place at a dinner party where she mixes with historical and fictional women who have achieved success at a high price. The other two acts, working backwards, show us Marlene and her colleagues at work; those scenes intertwined with others depicting her with her family. By the end, the nature and extent of that price have been revealed to us.
For the dinner party, owing to the illness of the billed actor for the prominent part of Isabella Bird, an intrepid Victorian globetrotter, Assistant Director Martha Berkmann, who was already taking a small part in Act II, courageously took the rôle on at very short notice and performed heroically, even managing a convincing Scottish accent.
But around the dinner table the acting of others was a little insipid, with sluggish cues and, despite the frequent gales of laughter that circled the table, the players struggled to make an impact with the script which, given the colourful guest list, promised much: among others an ex-concubine and a woman who had sat for a Pieter Brueghel portrait. Yet their life stories and dialogue turned out to be rather dull. The apocryphal Pope Joan struggled under the burden of an extended harangue, here played in a grating voice, that was surprisingly inconsequential; though containing one decent joke: 'I thought that God would speak to me directly – but he knew I was a woman!'. The dinner's impact was also hampered by the distraction of loudly squeaking hinges from the kitchen door as waitresses passed through it and also by muffled banging elsewhere in the theatre.
Things looked up later when teenagers Kit and Angie (Aisling Taylor and Hannah Patient) appeared, especially when they made me chuckle by diving under the stage whenever their mother/aunt came looking for them. They injected extra energy and variation of tone into the production. The troubled Patient was excellent, with a shrill voice, opening and closing her mouth like a just-caught plaice! Taylor, persuasively inclined to stroppiness, was also later very good as a drawling, gum-chewing job applicant, discovered to have been economical with the truth:
Shona: 'I burn up the M1 a lot!'
Agency interviewer: 'Have you done any jobs at all?'
Shona: 'I could, though. I bet yer!'
In another job interview, the applicant was advised to take off her wedding ring in order to maximise her chance of getting the job. I wondered for a moment whether this little exchange might have been re-written to reflect more contemporary issues that remain in discrimination, but actually its retention is a salutary reminder of how we got to here from there. As the play shifts into naturalism with the employment agency scenes, it felt as if we were watching a play of a different order. But we came finally to a strong ending where Marlene, embodying the Thatcherite push for individual salvation, with thought for community taking a back seat in the rush, comes face to face with her bitter sister Joyce, mother of Angie; played with just the right mixture of weariness and determination by Eilidh Ross.
This was a decent attempt at a play that's tricky to stage – disconnected scenes and acts, dialogue that's in my view longer on worthiness than inspiration, and characters who are types rather than rounded, let alone cherishable individuals.