Sharrock's Top Girls left me feeling over the moon

Review by Paul Nelson


The revival of the brilliant Caryl Churchill play Top Girls at the Aldwych is by and large not only a major event but also an evening to make alarm bells ring.

Written in the early Eighties at the height of the Thatcher years it is a warning that by following your leader blindly you will end up the worse for wear. I also find it worrying that Caryl Churchill does not seem to have inspired other women writers to plough their own particular fields.

Still, there can be too many copycats and the result will be emptiness.

The play opens with a fantasy restaurant meal to which Marlene, newly appointed top dog (or is that bitch) at an employment agency Top Girls, entertains a series of women from history. These include Pope Joan, Dull Gret (a character painted by Brueghel), Patient Griselda from the Canterbury Tales, Isabella Bird Bishop, a Victorian traveller who explored the barren regions of the world, and a Japanese character Lady Nijo, who in the 11th century was taken into the Japanese court to be a concubine to the Emperor.

The common denominator is that each woman was a traveller in the real sense and each gave up the idea of motherhood in order to travel more rapidly up the ladder of ambition, and this they have in common, we later learn, with Marlene.

It doesn't take too much imagination to realise that the employment agency is an allegory on the Tory government of the day, and all that is not absolutely perfect is to be callously discarded.

The play is actually three one-act plays knitted together by a fairly slender plot involving Angie, ostensibly the slow daughter of Joyce. They live in East Anglia and Angie daydreams about getting away and joining her aunt who lives a glamorous life in London.

When she does, which is the subject of the second play, she finds the glamorous life as heady as she had thought but we realise that she is totally ill equipped for it. Even her 'aunt' Marlene, points out cruelly to her staff that at best she could get a job as a shelf filler or some such in Tesco.

The third play takes a one-year leap back in time to a weekend when Angie has invited her aunt to East Anglia without telling her mother.

It is the most powerful play of all three. In it we realise Marlene is Angie's mother and that her sister Joyce has drudged away to bring her up. It is here that the acting goes up at least three gears turning the play into a very memorable evening.

Apart from alarm bells ringing in the plot, during which we realise just how easy it is for us to create a complete void in our lives, I have to complain (only this once, I promise) about the evening as entertainment.

The actors, all but one of whom name their theatre school should realise they are no longer in a fringe theatre but a proper sized playhouse and they need to project. I was sitting halfway down the house and found it difficult to hear a lot of the time, and the actors must have realised that when the front stalls laugh at a joke and the rest of the house is silent, something has to be attended to.

This is my only moan and to offset it I have to report there are performances which are sublime.

The two leading roles, Joyce and Marlene (note the difference in the peasant sounding Joyce vis-à-vis the sophisticated sounding Marlene) are played quite excellently by Helen Anderson and Hattie Ladbury. Miss Anderson indeed plays two other roles, Lady Nijo and Mrs Kidd, the wife of the man whose job Marlene has taken in the race for the top. These roles strongly contrast with that of Joyce, proving she is an actor to be watched. The scene in act three when the two let their hair down is one of the better things to be seen in London at the present time.

Pascale Burgess as Angie (doubling as Dull Gret) also has the power to move an audience, and Tameka Empson playing three roles, Angie's childhood friend; a worthless and therefore unsuccessful job applicant; and the waitress in the restaurant is also well worth seeing thrice.

The play has a stunning set dominated by a huge moon with a stage revolve for the dinner scene and the lighting is both minimal and powerfully effective.

Thea Sharrock, the director, has obviously taken great pains with the production. She must have been a tot when it was first produced, but she has assimilated both the period angst, its seriousness and the comedy which Churchill uses like a god using lightning spears.

The evening is an absorbing night out and one not to be lightly ignored.

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill, directed by Thea Sharrock. Produced by Phil Cameron for background & Oxford Stage Company, by arrangement with Michael Codron Plays Limited & Nederlander Theatres (Aldwych) Ltd. Designed by Rachel Blues, Lighting design by Johanna Town. With Hattie Ladbury (Marlene), Elizabeth Berrington (Isabella Bird, Nell, Jeanine), Helen Anderson (Lady Nijo, Joyce, Mrs Kidd), Pascale Burgess (Dull Gret, Angie), Joanna Scanlan (Pope Joan, Louise), Sophie Shaw (Patient Griselda, Win), Tameka Empson (Waitress, Kit, Shona). Aldwych Theatre, Aldwych, London WC2.