As Van Badham points out in her program essay for the new Sydney Theatre Company production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, when the play was first performed in 1982, Maggie Thatcher had been the British prime minister for three years. The first wave of British feminism in the 1970s had identified the patriarchal structure of society and was debating the ways in which it could be deconstructed. But now a woman was in charge and she was behaving like the most testosterone-charged of her predecessors. Many a crusty old Tory could be heard to say approvingly, ‘Maggie’s the only man in the cabinet.’
In Top Girls Churchill asks the question, was the ultimate purpose of the feminist struggle merely for the benefit of a few women who had the luck, opportunity, and aggression to beat men at their own game or was it actually to change society. As Churchill says: ‘I wanted [Top Girls] to ... look as if it were going to be a celebration of women achieving things, and then to put the other perspectives on it, to show that just to achieve the same things that men achieved in capitalist society wouldn’t be a good object.’
Accordingly, the play starts with Marlene (Helen Thomson) hosting a dinner party to celebrate her promotion to managing director of the employment agency at which she has been working. She has invited a group of historical and fictional women from the past to join her, and the disparate collection of women tell their stories as the alcohol-fuelled evening spirals out of control.
The play switches to the home of Marlene’s sister Joyce, far from the dazzle of London, a provincial backwater from which Marlene has escaped and in which Joyce is bringing up her supposed daughter Angie. The second act begins at the agency where Marlene and her brittle fellow workers go about their business interviewing a diverse group of hopefuls, callously grading them in terms of their marketability, and where Marlene is confronted by the distraught wife of the man whom she has beaten for the top job. This structure gives Churchill the opportunity to compare and contrast the historical position of women, the 1980s concept of the liberated woman and the unchanged position of women at the bottom of the social ladder. Although the play was obviously scheduled before it occurred, the rise of the #MeToo movement could hardly have made it more topical.
Top Girls is the opening show of the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2018 season, and the cast and production team have been chosen from strength, so the occasionally lacklustre result is something of a disappointment. In structure, in some ways, Top Girls resembles Churchill’s earlier play Cloud Nine (1979) in that the phantasmagoric first scene complements the later naturalistic ones. In his recent production of Cloud Nine, Kip Williams understood that to get the most out of the Kiplingesque parody that opens the play it was necessary to push the acting style into the broadest and most farcical approach possible. By doing so he managed to make the scene both hilarious and poignant. But Imara Savages’s staging of Top Girl’s opening dinner scene is, put bluntly, a mess. Acted in a more or less naturalistic style, the scene plods when it should soar and the women’s contrasting characters and stories are underplayed. It is only when the marvellous Heather Mitchell lets loose as the drunken Pope Joan, regurgitating both Lucretius and her dinner, that we get an inkling of the crazy vitality with which the scene should have been imbued.
Things improve markedly in the second act. Savage has chosen to present the play in the version of its first staging and not in Churchill’s preferred three-act variant. Thomson, Paula Arundell, and Michelle Lim Davidson make a formidable professional trio of top girls, and Thomson is chilling in her confrontation with Kate Box’s Mrs Kidd, the distraught wife. Mitchell once again makes her mark as a woman whose ability and competency have been taken for granted by her employers and who has been forced to watch younger, less experienced men be promoted above her.
But the heart of the play is the relationship between Marlene, Joyce, and Angie. Here, in the hands of Thomson, Box as Joyce, and Contessa Treffone as Angie, the production finally comes into its own. Angie, who is in revolt against her supposed mother and who worships her ‘Aunt’ Marlene, turns up at the employment agency, and the hard-bitten Marlene surprisingly agrees that she can stay with her indefinitely, only to share with a colleague her brutal assessment of the dim-witted girl: ‘She’s not going to make it.’ Her ultimate put-down.
The final scene takes place a couple of years earlier. To Joyce’s surprise and discomfort, Marlene arrives at her house under the impression that Joyce has asked to see her, and the sisters go at it hammer and tongs. These two powerful actors make what could have been a didactic confrontation between the aspirational Thatcherite and the struggling single mother working several cleaning jobs to survive into an encounter where glimmerings of mutual affection are snuffed out by the resentments caused by their different outlooks and economic circumstances. The play ends with Angie, just woken from a nightmare, telling Marlene ‘I’m frightened’. But so, whether they admit it or not, are all the characters in Churchill’s still brutally relevant play.
Top Girls (Sydney Theatre Company), written by Caryl Churchill, continues at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until 24 March 2018. Performance attended: 16 February.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.