Left – Paula Arundell and Helen Thomson. Photo – Rene Vaile
For those of us unfamiliar with Caryl Churchill’s 1982 classic, or indeed anyone not accustomed to her work in general, initial exposure to her hilarious, upsetting, dense and stimulating mode of writing may come as something of a befuddling shock. Top Girls is not so much a typical narrative play in terms of a straightforward nor immediately recognisable plot, so much as a series of internally cohesive and dramatically powerful scenes which are interconnected to varying degrees.
As the play progresses, and especially once it is over, one can increasingly see how the scenes relate to each other, with certain episodes mirroring, and some informing the content of others, providing new context, and in general suggesting the skeleton of a plot, which is also somewhat non-linear. Although each scene can wash over you as they play very much on their own merits as almost complete microcosms of drama in and of themselves, piecing it all together and appreciating the internal resonances in the show requires a degree of active engagement with the material, but to rewarding effect.
Indeed, the play announces up front that any mental passivity on the part of the audience is likely to go unrewarded, with the memorable opening segment involving a kind of fantasy sequence (or is it?) in which our modern-day main character hosts a dinner party for half a dozen notably unconventional women throughout history and folklore. These time-lost guests all proceed to talk at great length and with increasing emotion as they get progressively more intoxicated, speaking not only at frequent cross-purposes, but literally over each other, to the extent that it is all but impossible to catch every single word. It is a scene which is funny, fascinating, disturbing and confounding in equal measure. While the rest of the play abandons any further supernatural presentations of reality, this scene sets the stage whereby the context of what we see is not always immediately clear, by design.
The central character and host of the trans-temporal dinner party is Marlene, a high-powered woman who has been scaling the ladder of the business world in the 1970s. Having just been promoted over an experienced and well-qualified man at work, she is anticipating onwards and upwards success in the “Greed is Good” ‘80s with relish. We are presented with a juxtaposition of the goings on at Marlene’s workplace, an employment agency for women seeking secretarial work, in stark contrast to the depressed and depressing lives of her sister and niece in the cultural and economic rural backwater she was quick to escape from in her youth.
At the time it was written, the play was a then-contemporary examination of some of the feminist and class issues facing women on the cusp of the 1980s, and in this regard the play still feels rather unnervingly on-point almost four decades later, where the wage gap, ongoing attacks on reproductive rights, and the #MeToo moment are all forefront in our minds. Whether viewed as a period piece or a work of depressing ongoing relevance, the layered construction and dramatic heft of the play are hard to overstate in this often challenging piece of theatre.
Artfully directed by Imara Savage, this new production not only does the play justice, but is a platform for some truly superb acting. There is not a weak link in the entire ensemble, but special praise must go to the redoubtable Paula Arundell, the alternately hilarious and heartbreaking Heather Mitchell, and especially Contessa Treffone. She strongly impresses in twin roles as a food-scoffing peasant of centuries past and as Angie, the troubled teenaged niece of Marlene, in a brave and often quite unsettling performance.
The highest notices must however go to Helen Thomson as Marlene, and Kate Box as Joyce, her long-suffering sister. The final long scene, largely a two-hander between them, is magnetic, scarifying stuff, and quite possibly a bit too close to home for anyone with a history of family discord and sibling estrangement. Marlene is a bullishly conservative pro-Thatcherite, worshipping at the alter of Reaganomics and the myth of infinite upwards mobility, without even particularly caring about whether the money trickles down to the lower classes or not. There is an evident amount of self-loathing and self-denial here, as her character has embraced wealth and this philosophy of attaining it in direct opposition to her family’s lower-working-class unionist roots. It is this world of few opportunities and even less happiness which Marlene chose to flee long ago, but in which her sister still miserably lives, yet not without her pride.
As a long overdue reunion between them is manipulated into being by their possibly quite seriously disturbed daughter/niece, their barely scabbed-over old wounds are roughly reopened, and the sparks really start to fly. It is tough to watch, but impossible not be caught up in.
Definitely not light viewing, despite considerable amounts of humour throughout, and not for those seeking a night of casual entertainment, Top Girls is an engrossing classic of modern theatre in a superb new production.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
by Caryl Churchill
Director Imara Savage
Venue: Drama Theatre | Sydney Opera House NSW
Dates: 12 Feb – 24 Mar 2018
Tickets: $108 – $81