The Out of Joint production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a lively and, at times, surprising piece of theatre set in eighties Britain, where rising capitalism clashes with so-called ‘family values’ and women are struggling to find their place.
Split into three acts, the play starts with a dinner party hosted by eighties go-getter, Marlene (Caroline Catz), and attended by some powerful women from different periods of history. Cleverly choreographed and impressively staged, this is by far the most entertaining of the acts, as these long-departed figures recount events from their lives and deaths, often in harrowing detail.
Following the first interval, the play moves into a more conventional drama revolving around Marlene, her family and the Top Girls employment agency of which she has just become managing director.
With each act introduced and concluded with a blast of an eighties ‘anthem’, this is a play very much rooted in its time. With Margaret Thatcher about to become Prime Minister, it explores the changing role of women in society; from the dinner party guests who’s fate was (largely) inescapable to Marlene et al who have to live with the choices they’ve made.
In general, it is hard to find fault in Max Stafford-Clark’s direction, or the cast of talented women who memorably bring their multiple roles to life, most notably Esther Ruth Elliott and Victoria Gee. Yet there is something unsatisfying about the play as a whole.
While the eighties characters may be well drawn, it’s hard to truly identify with their situation or feel much empathy; juxtaposed as they are with the real predicaments and challenges faced by the women of centuries past. This is especially true during the final confrontation, as the merits (or otherwise) of Britain’s first female leader are casually thrown around.
First produced in 1982, the world now looks very different to the one portrayed here, but the divisions highlighted continue to resonate. And while the Thatcher years still polarise the opinion of those who lived through them, maybe that also remains true of Top Girls.
Top Girls is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 10 March.