Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is in the throes of a successful revival, nearly thirty years after it was originally produced at the Royal Court. Max Stafford Clark again directs this version and it seems absolutely relevant and up-to-date. Originally written by a socialist feminist during the Thatcher years, the play is just as potent today. Women’s equality battles are still being fought and are far from being won.
The opening scene makes a strong impact as Marlene (Suranne Jones) celebrates her promotion to Managing Director of the Top Girls employment agency. Her chosen guests are all women from history: Lady Nijo, (Catherine McCormack) a twelfth century Japanese courtesan who later became a Buddhist nun; Patient Grizelda (Laura Elphinstone) from Chaucer, Boccaccio and Petrarch; Isabella Bird (Stella Gonet), the nineteenth-century Scottish traveller and explorer; Pope Joan (Lucy Briers) and Dull Gret (Olivia Poulet), who fought the devils in hell in Brueghel’s painting. They are all strong, active women (with the exception of Griselda), who have overcome obstacles of some kind. Many of them have broken through boundaries, but are still confined in a patriarchal society of women in a men’s world. The least empowered of all the women is the waitress, who could possibly be said to be on a par with Griselda.
Despite the various period costumes, the same seven actors double their roles and portray the remaining twentieth-century characters during the play’s subsequent scenes. This gives a sense that women are still fighting the battle of the sexes and the war is far from over. Marlene may have achieved promotion over the head of an older male colleague, but we later learn the cost to her and her sister of her career.
When Marlene decides to visit her sister back at home in Suffolk, the contrast between the two and their lives is unmistakable. Although she dresses down from the smart cocktail dress and power suit she sports in other scenes, she still wears Prada jeans; her sister’s (Joyce played by Stella Gonet) jeans are older and shabbier, without a designer label. Even Joyce’s house is a far cry from Marlene’s smart London office. The older sister’s resentment is palpable when the two women argue over the choices they’ve made, or had thrust upon them. Joyce is still working at several jobs to make ends meet and hasn’t lost her East Anglia bur, whereas Marlene sounds as if she were a Londoner. However the realisation that Marlene, and not Joyce, is Angie’s (Olivia Poulet) mother is quite a shocker. Marlene has turned her back on her own daughter and allowed her sister to raise her as her own. Is this the price that must be paid for women to make it in a men’s world? There are also the unanswered questions of what will happen to the slightly backward Angie, and even the possibility that her father may have been Joyce’s husband. Women couldn’t have it all in 1982, when the play was written, and they still have to make sacrifices today in a world where equality with men is yet to be achieved.