Review: Top Girls, Minerva Theatre, Thursday 30 June 2011

Originally written for The Public Reviews.

At Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, it is not only the shoulder-pads, perms and hits from the likes of The Jam that evoke an atmosphere of nostalgia. This production of Top Girls, almost 30 years on from its premiere, reunites original director Max Stafford-Clark with the seminal work for the first time since its 1991 revival. So many years on, does Caryl Churchill’s powerhouse play still wield the same force?

The play opens with a fantastical dinner party, in which successful Thatcherite Marlene celebrates her promotion with a host of women from history, fiction and legend. In a striking opening act, what begins as a celebration of the women’s ‘extraordinary achievements’ gradually disintegrates as the veneer of success cracks to reveal the misery that lies beneath. A gift for female actresses, the scene draws out a clutch of outstanding performances, with Stella Gonet as adventure-seeking Victorian traveller Isabella Bird and Lucy Briers’ commanding yet vulnerable Pope Joan standing out in particular. The Minerva’s thrust stage has also allowed Stafford-Clark to seat the women at a round table, a smart directorial choice that facilitates the competing conversations of the script, although unfortunately the acoustics mean that it is a struggle to hear all the voices projected in different directions.

The themes of female oppression and sacrifice established in the intense first scene are continued throughout the succeeding acts, in which we see Marlene’s workplace and the contrast of the working class home and family that she left behind. It is in these latter two acts of the play that Suranne Jones’s Marlene really comes into her own, achieving a strong central performance that holds the piece together. The woman who has had to act like a man to get to the top, Jones gives Marlene just the right amount of brittleness and severity at the same time as allowing her to have a vulnerable side in an intelligent, sensitive and multi-faceted portrayal. There are notable performances too from Laura Elphinstone and Catherine McCormack as tough working girls Nell and Win and from Olivia Poulet as neglected, child-like teenager Angie.

The blistering third act, dominated by the confrontation between sisters Marlene and Joyce, is the final winding punch in a bleak and thought-provoking two and half hours. In a shower of bitter recriminations that morphs into a fierce ‘us and them’ political debate, Churchill hammers the final nail into Thatcherism and demonstrates how success for one woman does not translate into better lives for the many.

The potent end note, however, is slightly hampered by an all too unsympathetic performance from Stella Gonet as Joyce, with little of the softness that is needed to temper her resentment. One of the genius strokes of Churchill’s drama is its presentation of the world in varying shades of grey, but Gonet’s Joyce leans too far on the side of the character’s flaws. Indeed, a dark thread of bitterness runs through every character in this production, with the sense that Stafford-Clark has directed a deliberately stark revival.

In a time when every glossy rag is asking if women can have it all and the choice between career and motherhood is as hard as it has ever been, Churchill’s stark and unflinching portrayal of the sacrifices women make to get to the top is still stingingly relevant. While it is easy to leave the theatre with the smug thought that the world is not like that anymore, there remains the uncomfortable niggling suspicion that not all that much has changed. The shoulder-pads may have gone on the rubbish heap, but Churchill’s masterpiece continues to resonate.

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  1. […] narrative when you’re already familiar with the plot, as I discovered recently when watching Top Girls after studying it relentlessly for six […]

  2. […] of women. Actresses were blessed with the return of Caryl Churchill’s seminal all-female play Top Girls, which I caught at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester before it transferred to London’s […]



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