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Top Girls (Colchester, Mercury Theatre)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Given the time and style dichotomies in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, a director is always going to be hard-pressed to make its three scenes into a coherent whole. Gari Jones' new production goes a considerable way towards solving the problem by incorporating a visual cohesion. Sara Perks has devised a set backed with projection screens covered in signatures and dominated by a circular raised area on a revolve.

This houses the opening dinner party and is then stripped down, as we watch, so that its stark, modernist furniture devolves into the employment agency where Marlene has just been appointed managing director and then to her sister Joyce's run-down Suffolk home. The formal chairs of the diners are ranked either side of the now-stilled revolve; actresses not directly involved in the scene being played out sit on them, and wait.

It works very well. Without the projected potted biographies of the dinner-party guests, all those overlapping narrations in the first scene would be even more bewildering and difficult to follow than Churchill has made them. Shuna Snow makes much of Pope Joan's ultimately moving as well as harrowing recounting of her downfall and Kristin Hutchinson is convincing as Victorian explorer Isabella Bird.

The scene between stay-at-home Joyce and high-flier Marlene is finely paced by Hutchinson, increasingly bitter as her years of frustration finally boil over, and Gina Isaac's beautifully detailed Marlene. She inhabits the career woman to a degree where we cannot withhold understanding, even if our actual liking for the character is in short supply. The teenagers, slightly retarded Angie and tomboy Kit, bounce into real life as played by Clare Humphrey and Amy Stacey.

Amanda Haberland as the imperial concubine Lady Nijo and Nadia Morgan as docile too-patient Griselda translate themselves effortlessly into the 1980s Win, Nell and Janine, three women with bright aspirations but less inspiration. Hutchinson, incidentally, completes her hat-trick of characterisations with a fine sketch of Mrs Kidd, wife to the man Marlene has just displaced, whose plea for the restoration of his lost dignity inevitably falls on unresponsive ears.


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