‘One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market, four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon’*
And what of seven women? A Caryl Churchill hit play as it turns out, with career-driven Marlene (Helen Thomson) acting as the glue that holds the thing together. Top Girls is really three plays all rolled into one and is as ambitious as Marlene herself.
The first act contains a dinner scene when six women from history, all rebels or warriors of one stripe or another, converge to celebrate Marlene’s promotion in a proliferation of wine and brandy. The subsequent plays within include the workplace dramas of the top girls in the agency where Marlene works and the final ‘kitchen sink’ drama between Marlene and her sister Joyce (Kate Box) which completes the trifecta, when the story slips back in time to Joyce’s modest home in North Depressing-hamshire. Ok, not its real name, but you get the idea: Joyce and Marlene have led very different lives, with Marlene determined to leave from a young age and Joyce remaining behind.
Top Girls director Imara Savage describes Churchill’s work as layered and complicated, I will go her one further and add cryptic with a biting side of social commentary. Though this play is over thirty years old, except for the references to the late Maggie Thatcher, it holds it age well. Feminism, politics and class are all dissected with incisive wit as Marlene remains for the most part unapologetic for her lifestyle choices. Helen Thomson was resplendent in evening gown at the outset and she was majestic, taking command of the large stage, though the decision to stage Top Girls in the drama theatre perplexed me, the large stage dwarfed the actors at times, particularly the opening dinner sequence.
The play falters when it goes back in time after this long opening sequence to a scene with Joyce’s daughter and a friend, who seem at first to have appeared amidst the action apropos of nothing. After intermission there were many empty seats, the point of the play at the end of the first act was lost on many patrons who left confused and unimpressed. Caryl Churchill plays do have that affect on some people, her humour can be pretty out there.
By the second act the action was revved up when Paula Arundell and Michelle Lim Davidson show what the Top Girls are made of, as Marlene’s protégés at the agency. They are a dynamic team who revel in their roles and bring the action back on track after it derails at the end of act one. Contessa Treffone also deserves a special mention as Angie, who is in awe of Marlene and amused by the office politics.
It must have been a no-brainer for Kip Williams to program another Churchill play, especially after the success of Cloud Nine and Love and Information last year. Churchill frequently weaves two or more stories together from very different locations in time, with great success, as in Cloud Nine. In Top Girls however, the transition in time was not a seamless one and did challenge audiences. Her usual dry humour and audacity does win audiences over in the end however, and we are satisfied with the outcome even if Marlene is still unsure.
Top Girls is on at the Drama Theatre until 24 March, for more information and tickets see: https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2018/top-girls
Featuring: Paula Arundell, Kate Box, Michelle Lim Davidson, Claire Lovering, Heather Mitchell, Helen Thomson and Contessa Treffone.
Creative/Tech Team: Imara Savage (director), David Fleischer (set design), Renée Mulder (costume design), Damien Cooper (lighting design) and Max Lyandvert (composer and sound design).
above image by Brett Boardman
*The Netherlandish Proverbs: An International Symposium on the Pieter Brueg(h)els, ed. by Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont. 2004