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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Top Girls
by Lizzie Loveridge

But if I married him, I must obey him for ever. It was always easy because I always knew I would do what he said.  
--- Patient Griselda
 Top Girls
(from the left clockwise) Elizabeth Berrington as Isabella Bird, Sophie Shaw as Patient Griselda, Anderson as Lady Nijo, Pascale Burgess as Dull Gret, Joanna Scanlan as Pope Joan and Hattie Ladbury as Marlene
(Photo: Sarah Mitchell Partnership)

Caryl Churchill's play Top Girls won a place in the National Theatre's Millennium list of the hundred best plays of the twentieth century. In the 1980s, the three interrelated but distinct acts would have been innovative. Only one character, Marlene (Hattie Ladbury) appears in all three acts. The play moves from a dinner party thrown by Hattie with guests interestingly drawn from "representative women" from throughout history, giving a general perspective on the role of women. The middle act puts Hattie in the context of her business and shows two adolescent girls who live in Hattie's home county of rural Suffolk. The final act contrasts and confronts Hattie and her sister, Joyce (Helen Anderson), their lifestyle, values and aspirations.

The first act is the most interesting. Marlene has five guests at her dinner party at a revolving round table. She reveals little about herself except to introduce her guests and order the Frascati. The first guest is Isabella Bird Bishop (Elizabeth Berrington), a nineteenth century Scotswoman who overcame illness to travel and explore between the ages of 40 and 70 and who was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Geographic Society. Her contribution is some travellers' tales and conversation about her own marriage as well as to remind us that given determination, Victorian women could break away from their traditional role. Helen Anderson gives a portrayal of a Japanese courtesan, Lady Nijo, a thirteenth century imperial mistress who prattles incessantly about life as a concubine and the social inferiority of giving birth to daughters as opposed to sons.

Clad in red papal velvet, a rotund Joanna Scanlan plays the legendary Pope Joan, a woman reputed to have slipped through the Catholic Church's sex code and, having passed herself off as a man, was elected to the Papacy. She also took a lover, fell pregnant, gave birth in the street, and was stoned to death. Pope Joan, scholarly and occasionally lapsing into Latin, is most amusing in her matter of fact account of her studies in Rome and her clerical career. My pet bête noire, having studied Chaucer's The Clerk's Tale at the impressionable age of sixteen, is the feminist anti-heroine, the "Patient Griselda", who has the most dire of indignities and humiliation heaped upon her by her husband Walter, all in the cause of feminine subjugation. She is raised from a herder of swine to Lady of the Manor only to have her children taken from her, be cast back to the swine hovel and later made to wait on her husband's new, young wife (who is in fact her own daughter). Tush! Still the performance of this unlikely, downtrodden creature by Sophie Shaw is as believable as it could be, despite the ridiculous premise. Dull Gret (Pascale Burgess) lives up to her name and speaks almost never. She is based on a character in one of Breugel's paintings. She has no traditional feminine qualities, not even conversation.

The middle act introduces Hettie's fifteen year old daughter Angie (Pascale Burgess) who is being brought up in the countryside by her aunt Joyce (Helen Anderson) and Angie's friend, Kit (Tameka Empson). It works well enough having grown up actresses playing adolescents. There are also scenes from the employment agency where Hattie is a director. One involves Mrs Kidd (Helen Anderson) the wife of a man passed over for promotion in favour of Hattie, another Joanna Scanlan as a woman unwanted and almost unemployable after twenty one years in one job. There are discussions about marriage and being a mistress to a married man from the girls who work at the agency. These scenes in the twentieth century resonate with the lives of the dinner guests.

The final act aand the most characteristic of the 1980s is when Hattie, successful business woman in London, unencumbered by children or husband , discusses life with her sister, Joyce who has been married and raised Hattie's daughter. Hattie characterises the values of the achievement driven decade of Thatcherism but also gives an indication of the emptiness of a materially successful business career. The sisters express their loathing for each other but they also demonstrate how much they need each other. Helen Anderson takes on three very different parts and earns the acting honours for her Japanese lady and Suffolk country housewife.

Thea Sharrock has directed this revival, the first act in the round with a revolving table so that no one character has their back to us all the time. Rachel Blues' set is dominated by a large globe backdrop which become three dimensional to house an attic scene in the second act which allows us to see the girls in their bedroom and Joyce hanging out the washing downstairs. On the whole, this ambitious play is more interesting to write about and to discuss than it is to watch, but it will be a more unusual addition to the programme of plays on tour.

Top Girls
Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Thea Sharrock

With: Elizabeth Berrington, Sophie Shaw, Helen Anderson, Pascale Burgess, Joanna Scanlan, Hattie Ladbury and Tameka Empson
Design: Rachel Blues
Lighting Design: Johanna Town
Sound: Mic Pool
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 4000 700
Booking to 2nd February 2002 then on UK tour
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th January 2002 performance at The Aldwych Theatre, Aldwych London WC2
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