UNQUESTIONABLE EXCELLENCE QUESTIONS THE '80S
Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Shane Bosher
presented by Silo Theatre
at Q, 305 Queen St, Auckland
From 23 Feb 2012 to 18 Mar 2012
Reviewed by Joanna Page, 25 Feb 2012
Last night, Director Shane Bosher and his Top Girls cast took me back in time to 1980s England under Thatcher; when the shoulder pads were as sharp as cheekbones, and no one had heard of an iPhone. The music scene exploded with anthems and feel-good vibes, and businesswomen thought they were finally their male colleagues' equals.
At the time, I thought the '80s were awesome. Radical even. But looking back, as I did last night, I'm not so sure I was right.
That's the whole point of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, which was first produced in 1982. It's political and it addresses the conflict between the feminist movement and the stance of Britain's first female Prime Minister. Pretty heavy, huh?
Well it is, and it isn't.
The three-act play revolves around Marlene (Danielle Cormack), a London Recruitment Agent who has just been promoted to the Managing Director's position – at the expense of a male colleague.
We first join her at the celebratory dinner she throws for an intriguing ensemble of strong female role models from throughout the ages. There's Isabella Bird (Bronwyn Bradley), a 19th Century traveller and writer with plenty of health gripes; Lady Nijo (Nancy Brunning), a seemingly happy 13th Century Japanese concubine and Buddhist Nun; Dull Gret (Sophie Hambleton), an apron and armour-clad warrior; Pope Joan (Rima Te Wiata), the scholar who lived as a male and became Pope only to bear a child to one of her servants; and Patient Griselda (Rachel Forman), the obedient wife of the Marquis of Saluzzo.
I'll leave it up to you to decide whether the dinner party is really all in Marlene's mind. Regardless, it is such an accurate portrayal of a girls' night that the audience can easily be sitting at neighbouring tables. The women talk over each other, and about themselves … At times it is hard to follow, yet everyone's story is told with laughter and tears.
Everyone's except Marlene's.
Then we move to Marlene's present life where she shares an office with the driven Jeanine (Rachel Forman) and Win (Nancy Brunning) as they cut job applicants down to size and skirt around the issue of professional jealousy.
And we glimpse into Marlene's past when Angie (Sophie Hambleton), her 'slow' niece, arrives to surprise her after fighting with her much-younger friend Kit (Abigail Greenwood) and her mother, Joyce (Bronwyn Bradley).
Act 3 pulls everything together.
It's a complex play that seems perfectly suited to the Q space. Simon Coleman's set design is simplicity itself and captures the essence of the '80s – even down to the glass mugs in the office. The dinner party is performed in the round, which works beautifully and adds to the 'trippiness' of the situation.
The set design is complemented by Elizabeth Whiting's costumes. From pre-warrior classJapanto 1980s power dressing, she nails each period and class. Despite the range of styles – including The Pontiff's garb - Joyce's shoes steal the show for me.
Jason Smith's sound design means that we can hear everyone clearly, no matter which side of the stage they face, and Jane Hakaraia's lighting transports us to halogen-lit offices and drab working-class kitchens.
Put together, Top Girls is as slick as it can be.
As for the cast, I've seen a lot of shows but I've never seen a tighter team. Each actor plays beautifully off the others, and the sense of equality is palpable.
Danielle Cormack's Marlene is as vulnerable as she is strong. She plays the one role while everyone else takes on multiples, yet her character is multi-faceted.
Bronwyn Bradley's Isabella Bird is the antithesis of her Joyce. One is domineering and pioneering, the other downtrodden and quietly angry. She is powerful as both.
Lady Nijo is a tragic character in Nancy Brunning's hands; tragic yet unquestioning, whereas her Win is as hard-arse as they come.
Dull Gret has little to say, yet plenty to do – a part that Sophie Hambleton seems to relish. As Angie she is heartbreakingly honest and vulnerable, so the question of her fate stays with you for hours afterwards.
I think Rima Te Wiata has a blast as Pope Joan. In spite of her sad end, she is hilarious, rambunctious and genuine. And I take my hat off to her for her Latin delivery (she's a Pope after all). As the disgruntled job candidate, Louise, she is masterful in showing the character's professionalism and simmering resentment for being passed over in favour of the men she'd trained.
Rachel Forman has a tough job as Patient Griselda. The character's complete obedience to her husband is so beyond most people's understanding that it's hard to portray without coming across as being spineless. Yet she does. In contrast, her Recruitment Agent Nell is ballsy, glib, and a tad bitter.
Abigail Greenwood's child-character Kit is so convincing you'll want to pinch her cheeks – and a world away from job-seeking hopeful, Shona. It's her non-speaking role as the waitress in Act 1 that really shows her skill – you're aware of her, yet not distracted by her and with so much else going on, that's almost impossible to achieve.
Top Girls really is about the divisions between classes and genders at the time when women still had to choose between careers and motherhood, and the glass ceiling was at knee-level. You'll leave wondering how much has actually changed in 30 years.
Regardless of whether you want to enjoy Top Girls as great play, or you're keen to delve into the political history it discusses, nobody could have done it better. Without question.
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See also reviews by:
Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);
Rosabel Tan (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);