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Review Round-up: Churchill's Girls Still On Top

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Max Stafford-Clark's revival of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls transferred to London's Trafalgar Studios last week (17 August 2011, previews from 5 August).

Having recently enjoyed success and critical acclaim at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Top Girls stars Suranne Jones as Thatcherite career woman Marlene, who hosts a dinner party for success women from history and art to celebrate her promotion to director of Top Girls Recruitment Agency.

The all-female cast also includes Stella Gonet as Marlene's underachieving sister, and Olivia Poulet as her frumpy niece, with dinner party guests played by from Lucy Briers, Laura Elphinstone, Lisa Kerr and Catherine McCormack.

The play runs at Trafalgar Studios until 29 October 2011.

Michael Coveney

“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…convene in a restaurant, La Primadonna, to celebrate Marlene’s appointment as managing director of an employment agency. .. Stafford-Clark divides 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. And it’s beautifully acted here, not just by Jones and Gonet, but also by Olivia Poulet as both a bovine Dull Gret and an aggressively enthusiastic and muddled-up Angie, with delightful, pointed contributions from Lucy Briers, Laura Elphinstone, Lisa Kerr and Catherine McCormack. Great design, too, by Tim Shortall."

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

"How wonderful to see the stage of a West End play filled entirely by women. How sobering though that, 29 years after its Royal Court debut, this feisty feminist polemic from Caryl Churchill should still elicit such an opening comment in a review. Churchill's theatrically audacious, unmistakably heartfelt drama takes the pulse of the sisterhood in the age of Thatcher and is forced to conclude that some sisters are considerably more equal than others. Tory prime ministers may change, this luxuriously cast revival transferring in from Chichester seems to say, but other things stay grimly the same. Marlene (Suranne Jones) has just been appointed MD of the Top Girls employment agency and to celebrate has thrown the dinner party of one's intellectual dreams. …So where have the centuries left us? Churchill doesn't hesitate: in the gap between the go-getting haves and the left-behind have-nots of early Eighties Britain. Acts Two and Three pull us, in both location and sympathy, between Marlene's slick office, all big hair and power-dressing, and the rural home of her estranged sister Joyce (Stella Gonet), struggling with her educationally backward teenage daughter Angie (Olivia Poulet). Fine work from all seven actresses keeps our emotions on the spin and director Max Stafford-Clark offers a nuanced but fleet-footed production. Lucy Briers makes a deliciously straight-talking pontiff and Poulet transforms from a comically monosyllabic dinner guest into the sort of girl history is likely to forget. Top stuff."

Reviews from the Chichester Festival Theatre....

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

“I’m a crusty old Tory while Caryl Churchill comes across as a pretty hard-line socialist and feminist. So you might expect me to have hated this revival of Top Girls. In fact the play, first staged in 1982, strikes me as a modern classic. It’s often splendidly funny and inventive, and, by the end, deeply moving, too. …It’s a wonderfully amusing and disconcerting scene, directed with superb panache by Max Stafford-Clark who was responsible for the play’s premiere almost 30 years ago. The over-lapping conversations and the wit of much of the dialogue is superbly caught, and you feel as if you are eavesdropping on one of the most entertaining dinner parties you have ever attended. …The political arguments are strongly tied to both character and dramatic situation and Stafford-Clark’s witty yet deeply felt production brilliantly combines comic knockabout with strong emotion and evocative period detail. Suranne Jones captures the very essence of the pushy Eighties as Marlene, all padded shoulders and ruthless drive. Stella Gonet is deeply affecting as her harassed sister while Olivia Poulet movingly suggests a troubled, disadvantaged teenager who will go under in the tough competitive Eighties. Most plays about Thatcher’s Britain were strident studies of social deprivation and blustering fury. In contrast Top Girls is oblique, witty, deeply felt and theatrically daring. I recommend it highly, even to reactionaries like me.”

Paul Taylor

“...The piece begins with an outrageously funny and disturbing tour de force – a long, semi-absurdist scene in which Marlene (superb Suranne Jones), a young working-class-made-good "career woman" and Thatcherite individualist, celebrates her promotion…by hosting a dinner at a swanky London restaurant for female figures from history and art. These range from Pope Joan (portrayed with a lovely wit by Lucy Briers), to Lady Nijo, a 13th-century Japanese concubine (portrayed by an hilarious Catherine McCormack). Max Stafford-Clark's crack cast perform the scene with a wonderful mad verve, bringing out all the comedy of incongruity as the different cultural assumptions of the women thwack against each other at a social event more associated with parties of bullish bankers. In the questions it raises about women and reproduction and success, this episode also sets up the situation, explored with agonising realism in later sections, whereby we learn that Marlene's progress has been bought at the expense of her illegitimate daughter (an emotionally famished Olivia Poulet) who has been brought up as the child of her resentful proletarian sister (excellent Stella Gonet). The climactic ding-dong between the sisters is gut-wrenchingly well played here – the recrimination and the muscle memory of intimacy, the bile and the blood that is thicker than water, the sense that Marlene's go-getting individualism depends upon exploiting other women set against the irritating defeatism of her sister. A classic play in a classic production.”

Patrick Marmion
Daily Mail

"A little piece of theatrical history is blowing through Chichester until the end of next week. It is Max Stafford-Clark’s moving revival of Caryl Churchill’s great 1982 play about the rise of women in the workplace and the changing face of British society under Mrs Thatcher. Churchill’s genius was to tap into the ordinariness of people’s experience of economic and social change. …The great thing about the story is that it doesn’t take sides. Churchill merely observes the dying of one era and the mewling emergence of another. Suranne Jones as the stridently ambitious Top Girls boss Marlene, sums it up when she proudly exclaims: ‘I believe in the individual!’ It’s hard to remember that this now commonplace assertion was once capable of dividing families. Stella Gonet is a withering critic as her countrified opposite number Stafford-Clark directs a touching production as impeccably cast as his original (which starred Lindsay Duncan, Lesley Manville and Deborah Findlay). Catherine McCormack plays a Japanese concubine and a strident Top Girls employee with vim. But the most significant supporting role is Olivia Poulet as the ‘lazy and stupid’ teenager mesmerised by the mother who  rejected her. The world would never be the  same again."


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