Note: This review dates from September 2001 and an earlier stop on this production's UK tour.
Caryl Churchill is an intensely political dramatist and Oxford Stage Company's revival of her 1982 play Top Girls takes us back to an intensely political time - the early days of Thatcherism.
On the one hand, this "yuppie" era can be seen as a great triumph, the culmination of various movements to improve women's lives. But, of course, it was also a time of rampant greed that sat uneasily with record-level unemployment and the economically dispossessed. In Top Girls - set in an employment agency for women ruthlessly fighting their way to the top in a way that previous female generations never could have - Churchill continually flips the coin of the time to inspect the other side.
It's not an easy piece, but under Thea Sharrock's expert direction, the company grapples with it to good effect. The text has been rearranged somewhat for simplicity's sake. From the surreal opening restaurant scene, we move to the office and then home, edging progressively closer to the real characters and their concerns.
Cast members double up on parts to portray their dual worlds and, in the main, deliver in spades. As Marlene, Hattie Ladbury manages to come across as both nauseatingly Thatcherite and a strangely attractive at the same time. Her proliferation of voices and accents is also well managed. And as youngsters Kit and Angie, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Pascale Burgess are notable for their superb abilities to convey both the body language and vocal patterns of children.
Also deserving of top marks is Rachel Blues' clever set design. Her choice to set a dinner party on a revolving stage niggles at first - what if you miss some of the lines? - but it's the right one. Rather than hinder, it helps you hear all the overlap of voices (a signature Churchill innovation) and appreciate the spontaneity of such "real" conversation.
Oxford Stage should also be praised for unleashing the humour in Churchill's text. So often, Top Girls is approached as a ponderous political allegory, but not here. That said, such an approach does mean that we occasionally lose the seriousness of the message. Joanna Scanlan's Louise, for instance, verges on the ridiculous rather than being a poignant portrayal of an unsuccessful woman trapped in an alien world. The bitterness of the final argument between Marlene and Joyce seems muted too. Perhaps the conflict between Thatcherism and Socialism feels less convincing to a millennium audience with a Labour government? Thus, Angie's final "frightening" appears oddly dated.
Nonetheless, this is an excellent production overall and a worthy revival.
- Adele Wills (reviewed at Leicester's Haymarket Theatre)