Reviewed by James Karas
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls gets an ambitious and interesting production directed by Vikki Anderson for the Shaw Festival.
Seven actors play sixteen characters in a play that starts as an imaginary dinner and ends up as a kitchen sink drama. All the characters are women and the play covers a lot of ground from the historical oppression of women to the feminist movement in the 1980s during the rise of Maggie Thatcher.
The cast of Top Girls. Photo by David Cooper.
Marlene (Fiona Byrne) has just been promoted to managing director of an employment agency and she goes out for dinner with her “friends”. She has quite a collection of them in her fantasy world if not in reality. There is Pope Joan (Claire Jullien) from the 9th century, Lady Nijo (Julia Course), a Japanese woman who was an Emperor’s courtesan and a Buddhist monk in the 13th century. Patient Griselda (Tara Rosling), immortalized by Chaucer in the 14th century as the exemplar of the obedient wife. We also have Dull Gret (Laurie Paton), a peasant who was painted by Brueghel leading a crowd of women through hell, and Isabella Bird (Catherine McGregor), a 19th century Scottish world traveler.
That is a colourful gathering and the women have amazing stories to tell as they get progressively drunk. The women have a tendency to talk over each other even when they are sober. Anderson is following the script directions faithfully even if some of the dialogue is buried in the cross chatter. This occurs numerous times throughout and it if at times it indicates the reality of dinner conversation or heightened emotions it is also annoying now and then.
The bizarre dinner party turns into office politics in the second act which takes place in the employment agency that Marlene heads. Interviews with job seekers, office adultery and power politics dominate the act.
From office politics we move to domestic drama in Joyce’s (Rosling) backyard and later in her kitchen. Joyce is Marlene’s sister and the mother of Angie (Course), perhaps the most annoying teenager imaginable. Full marks to Course for going from the rather distant Lady Nijo to the overactive and infuriating brat.
The connection between the celebration of a promotion with female grandees from the past one thousand or so years and the office and domestic conflicts of Marlene is rather tenuous. One can force all kinds of connections with the abuse of women and the rise of feminism as well as the negative consequences of the latter (does giving up your child count as a negative) but I found it dramatically unconvincing.
Top Girls is a superb vehicle for actors. Byrne plays the efficient, ambitious and tough new woman who climbs the corporate ladder. When the wife of another candidate for the job comes to tell her how upset and indeed ill her husband is Marlene tells her to piss off.
From that role she smirches to being an aunt, a sister and a daughter and goes through some emotional crises. Splendid work by Byrne.
Rosling gets to play the forbearing, obedient and abused Griselda and the exasperated mother of Angie. A nice switch in roles and an opportunity to display talent.
Jullien has her work cut out as the exuberant Pope Joan as well Win, an office worker and the mendacious Shona. Paton is the piggish Dull Gret as well as Mrs. Kidd, the aggrieved wife of the man who did not get the job and the job-seeking Jeanine.
Anderson and Designer Sue Lepage have turned the stage of the Court House Theatre into a veritable dressing room. There are make-up tables and closets and the actors change wigs and clothes in front of the audience. That is a very interesting and appropriate approach to a play that deals with so many characters with no pretense of realism at least in the first act.
It is a long way from the fascinating dinner of the first act, to office politics to domestic differences and I found the trip unconvincing even with the backdrop of feminism. But that is an issue with the play and not with this production.