Top Girls is often described as one of the most important pieces of drama from the twentieth century. On the basis of Max Stafford-Clark’s revival, I am struggling to see how people could come to that opinion.
Caryl Churchill’s structure is deliberately disjointed and her demands that actors speak over one another somewhat overused. I appreciate that people do talk over one another but when there are three conversations on stage simultaneously, it is impossible for an audience to fully comprehend what is being said. What should be heard is all too often lost in a cacophony of noise.
I know that the play has many devoted followers and it is clear to me that I will never be one of them – which, as a reviewer, is something that happens. However a good production should still allow me have a satisfying night in the theatre – particularly when it is being delivered by a highly regarded director whose work has impressed in the past.
Stafford-Clark may have assembled a top quality cast for the Chichester and London runs of the current production but the tour does seem to be somewhat mis-cast in a number of key roles. This is a shame as there are a couple of performances which do capture the mood perfectly (Caroline Catz stands out in the pivotal role of Marlene and Esther Ruth Elliott as Pope Joan has some great moments.)
The weakest area of the entire production is the accent work. It is, I fear, some of the worst I have ever encountered on the professional stage. When you are wincing at the accents being used, you are not listening to what is being said – which is a problem when you are dealing with a play of ideas rather than character or narrative.
There are also problems with the re-blocking of certain scenes. With a tour, there are always going to be issues in adapting to the spaces that the various theatres afford. However this is far from the first time that Stafford-Clarke has worked in the Oxford Playhouse and it is a shame when the actors were obscured from large parts of the audience.
Overall, I found the play and production both deeply frustrating. I found the message garbled and the characters all unsympathetic. I know others will violently disagree with my response to both the text and the production – that is just part of being a critic.