Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, written to coincide with the rise and rise of Mrs Thatcher in the early 1980s, remains one of the canonical plays of the late 20th century, performed all over the world and long established as a set text in drama schools and universities.
So it’s good to be reminded in this stunning Out of Joint production by the play’s original director, Max Stafford-Clark, first seen at Chichester in June, that its theatrical juice still flows unclogged by reputation; Stafford-Clark directs as if the play had just landed in his in-tray.
Structurally, Top Girls is brilliant, radical and resonant: great women from history – a female pope, a Victorian explorer, a Japanese courtesan, Patient Griselda and Brueghel’s Dull Gret – convene in a restaurant, La Primadonna, to celebrate Marlene’s appointment as managing director of an employment agency.
In the second act, Marlene’s ‘niece’ Angie leaves home in Suffolk to find the office, while Marlene and her staff conduct brutal interviews and fend off the wife of the man she’s displaced: “What’s it going to do for him, working for a woman?”
Stafford-Clark now divides these two scenes from the third, which boils down to a sibling showdown, one year before, between Marlene (the outstandingly soignée but still vulnerable Suranne Jones) and Stella Gonet’s scrubbed, implacable, but worn down Joyce, who’s raised Angie and stayed true, though not necessarily out of choice, to her working-class origins.
I’ve always loved and admired the play, but I had forgotten how ingeniously it makes its effects and arguments. And of course we see it now in even sharper relief in the march of history. “I think the 1980s are going to be stupendous!” says Marlene, and she was right, by her lights. But now look what happened. Top Girls is not so much historical pastoral as ironical satirical.