Top Girls

Studio 77, Victoria University, 77 Fairlie Tce, Kelburn, Wellington

01/11/2006 - 04/11/2006

Production Details

Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Megan Peacock

MTA Directing (Toi Whakaari/VUW)

The female of the species is often her own worst enemy!

Caryl Churchill’s all-female play Top Girls is a feminist commentary on the ‘career woman’ of the 1980s. Churchill implicitly condemns the increasing incidence of Thatcherist values in British society, especially their effect on the growth of feminism.

The play highlights the sacrifices women make to ‘get-to-the-top’ and this production investigates the confusion of the ‘liberated’ woman, which results in the protagonist Marlene finding herself in a lonely cut-throat office jungle with no room for any feminine emotions that might get in the way of climbing to the top.

The play is famous for its dreamlike opening sequence in which Marlene contemplates the choices she has made and celebrates a promotion with famous women from history. These fantasy characters include Pope Joan, who, disguised as a man, is thought to have been pope between 854-856; the explorer Isabella Bird; Dull Gret, the harrower of Hell; Lady Nijo, the Japanese mistress of an emperor and later a Buddhist nun; and Patient Griselda, the uncomplaining wife from ‘The Clerk’s Tale’ in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

TINA COOK                   Isabella Bird, Joyce, Mrs Kidd

SALLY RICHARDS        Marlene

HARRIETTE COWAN   Pope Joan, Louise

JULIE NOEVER            Waitress, Kit, Shona

SERENA COTTON         Dull Gret, Angie

ALICIA SUTTON           Patient Griselda, Nell

ROBYN PATERSON      Lady Nijo, Win

Theatre ,

Themes shine through

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 04th Nov 2006

Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s famous 1982 play about the cost to women who reach the summits of the male-dominated hierarchy of business, has been described as essentially not one but three excellent short plays all contributing to her central theme.

The first play is a surreal dinner party which the hostess and central character of the three plays, Marlene, has invited five women who have all succeeded but suffered in the playing of male roles. Her guests are Pope Joan (Harriette Cowan), Chaucer’s Patient Griselda (Alicia Sutton), a Japanese courtesan who became a Buddhist nun (Robyn Patterson), Isabella Bird the Victorian traveler (Tina Cook), and Dull Gret (Serena Cotton) whom Brueghel painted leading a group of women charging through hell and fighting with devils.

The second play is a series of snapshots of smug, successful business women working at Marlene’s Top Girls’ Employment Agency interviewing women for dead-end jobs.

The third play zeroes in on family life and we discover the cost of emancipation and equality to Marlene who believes with Margaret Thatcher that the 1980s are a time when anyone can do anything if they have what it takes. We also discover the cost to her sister Joyce and her daughter Angie who don’t have what it takes.

Megan Peacock’s production is straightforward, at times static, but mercifully without showy directorial flourishes thus allowing Churchill’s themes to shine through, particularly in the final, powerful scenes between Sally Richards’ Marlene and Tina Cook’s spunky Joyce, both of whom carried on seemingly unperturbed by a deafening and false fire alarm in the middle of their major scene.


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Well worth revisiting

Review by John Smythe 04th Nov 2006

It’s a brave new director who casts other new directors in the showcase production that sees her complete her Master of Theatre Arts.

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls – named for the employment agency of which its central character, Marlene, is about to become the managing director – has a cast of seven women. Of them four have graduated from, or are currently doing, the MTA directing course (with Toi Whakaarki: NZ Drama School and the Victoria University of Wellington theatre programme).

The upside, of course, is that – along with the other three highly qualified    and accomplished actors – they bring a great deal of intelligence both to their clear understanding of the play’s content and purpose, and how it works as a provocative piece of theatre.

While Margaret Thatcher had led the British Conservative Party since 1975, she was still in her first term as Prime Minister – and had yet to improve her poll ratings by going to war against Argentina for the Falkland Islands – when Churchill wrote Top Girls, in 1981. Initially, then, it was possible to see the play as something of a reactionary response to women finally breaking through the glass ceiling.

Twenty five years on it is easier to tune into its searing critique of the monetarist economic values that came to be known as "Thatchernomics" in the UK and, half a decade later in NZ, as "Rogernomics" then "Ruthenasia".

With a sure eye and consummate skill director Megan Peacock and her cast align the play’s epic sweep from women in history and literature, through comparisons between home life and work life, individuality and family relationships, youth and so-called maturity, toward the final climactic domestic clash between the highly ‘successful’ Marlene and her home-body sister, Joyce (rhymes with choice? Now there’s a question).  

That this confrontation so powerfully distils all the themes the play has traversed to that point is testament to the skill underpinning this production. It would be all too easy for a show of this scale to lose its way in ‘production values’ and it has to be said it’s a plus that such low/no-budget productions are obliged, by circumstance, to focus on the characters and relationships above all else.

My only quibble is that they’ve chosen Cockney accents for the ‘back home’ scenes which brings them far too close to London. It needs to be more regional (mention of an estuary suggests somewhere coastal and Ipswich, to the south east, is where the mother of Marlene and Joyce now languishes).

Sally Richards’ ruthless and finally lonely Marlene could be found in the CBD any day of the week. She and Peacock make it very clear the women she summons to account for themselves at her otherwise solitary promotion celebration are filling her knowledge-crammed brain as she pursues the natural human quest for true fulfilment.  

In a splendid triple, Tina Cook contrasts ebullient Victorian adventurer Isabella Bird with a subtly judgemental Mrs Kidd (wife of the man Marlene has usurped for the top job) and rough-as-guts Joyce. As the role-conditioned sister, she constrains the potential of daughter Angie with unthinkingly negative put-downs yet confronts day-to-day realities with a stoic strength, and leaves us to pass judgement as we may.

Having consumed copious quantities of bread and wine as Dull Gret, Brueghel’s "harrower of Hell", Serena Cotton reveals the wants, needs, feelings and thoughts of Angie in a compelling performance that provokes compassion without sentimentality.

Julie Noever, who plays the Waitress neutrally in Act 1, nails smart kid Kit – Angie’s only friend – and Shona, the self-deceived "I can do anything" job applicant, to great effect. Robyn Patterson’s Japanese Emperor’s mistress-cum-Buddhist nun, Lady Nijo, is sharp, witty and nobody’s fool. She brings much the same persona to Agency employee Win (at all costs?).

As the uncomplaining wife from ‘The Clerk’s Tale’ in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Alicia Sutton challenges us to see her extraordinary subjugation to her master’s will – or is it selflessness? – as a great inner strength. In the office, her self-serving go-getter Nell, is a telling contrast.

Harriette Cowan completes an excellent cast that does great justice to their director’s well-focused vision of a play that is well-worth revisiting.


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