It’s a bit of a period piece, in too many ways. The power-dressing and power-politics of the 1980s seem to belong to another era altogether. Which, of course, they do. So we’re left with a first scene in which various historical and fictional characters sit down in the aptly named La Prima Donna restaurant to regale us with their life stories. Like all people with fascinating pasts, they’re more eager to regale us with these than to actually listen to what anyone else is saying. The overlapping dialogue seems to parallel one of those slow-building ensembles in 19th century opera.
The five, sumptuously costumed actresses playing Isabella Bird (Kirsten Hazel Smith), lady Nijo (Alix Dunmore), Pope Joan (Esther Ruth Elliott), Dull Gret (Victoria Gee) and Patient Grislda (Helen Bradbury) make their spectacular entrances down a formal staircase (you almost expect the soundtrack to burst into the title number from Hello Dollie) to be greeted by Caroline Catz’s hostess-with-the-mostest Marlene.
Then we’re in Joyce (Smith)’s backyard in rural East Anglia, in the Top Girls employment agency in which Marlene is queen bee and (stay with this) in Joyce’s kitchen a year before the last scene. Joyce is Marlene’s sister and has a daughter Angie (Gee) who yearns for her aunt’s apparently glamorous life but is completely inadequately equipped ever to attain it. You can’t fault the performances as such, for they’re uniformly good. It’s just that an alienation effect overlays it all, so that one can’t really care about any of the characters.