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Top Girls by Carl Churchill

By Mathew Taylor


Friday 19th November 2004


Now, embarrassingly enough for a playwright, I had never seen or read "Top Girls" until last summer. Something about my pre-conceptions of it led me to believe I wasn't going to like it. Too "of it's time"?   Too "feminist"?   Who knows...


But then I read it, in Keith's big book of Drama he lent me, and while my pre-conceptions did seem to be partially true (it IS "of it's time", and it IS "feminist", whatever either of those definitions mean), there's clearly far more to it than that.


The first act is the one which grabbed me, bringing together famous women from art and history to a dinner party. I particularly liked the first act as it seemed to have little or no connection to the second or third acts, which tell the story of the relationship between a successful businesswoman, Marlene, her practical country-living sister Joyce, and the teenage Angie, who is apparently Joyce's daughter (spoiler coming up later in the review!)


Still, on reading it, I wasn't over-enamoured. We've moved on (on the surface, at least! although I'm sure we could debate this...) in the last twenty years from many of the issues around women in the workplace which make up much of the second act. And I still couldn't see how the relationship between Act One and the other two acts made the play what it was meant to be.


The truth of the play, though, became much more apparent on seeing Pepper's Ghost Theatre Company's version just a few months later. Some plays just don't work as well on the page, I guess...


Their stage version was very good indeed - bringing the occasionally creaky script to life with good pacing, effective staging, and some excellent characterisation. Natasha Ellis as the central figure Marlene was particularly good, her focus and concentration were sharp throughout, and I enjoyed her scenes with Sue Whyte as Joyce especially. Carolyn Vale also showed a good range as the teenage Angie and seemed to be having lots of fun as the blunt, crude Dull Gret at the dinner party (my favourite character!)


The dinner party itself was probably the best section - what had seemed laboured at times reading it on the page made far more sense as a quickfire series of conversations where characters talked over each other, went off on tangents and generally yammered on. The energy level was excellent, and when the interval came I was genuinely surprised how quickly the time had gone, despite the length.


Of the other two acts, I still preferred the family scenes with Marlene, Joyce and Angie to the office snapshots. Maybe the office scenes need a few more years to become "historic" (re-read some of the major late 50s plays now, or even the left-wing rhetoric of the 70s, for example) rather than "dated" , but there was still fun and sharpness to be found in them - Sheila White's laid-back portrayal of Win, for example.


But the third act seemed to me to be where the heart of the play was in this performance. The confrontation between Marlene and Joyce was played beautifully, with a genuine awkward anger bubbling under the performances. The revelation that Angie is in fact Marlene's daughter, although seeded earlier, wasn't as heavy-handed as I'd found it when reading the play.


A special note also needs to go to the lighting and the stage design, which worked throughout, and combined to beautiful effect for the last image of the play: Angie standing at the back of the stage in an eerie half-light, hair obscuring her face. It looked for all the world like something from a Japanese horror like The Ring , and stayed with me for days afterwards. That's what theatre's all about.


I suppose it's no surprise, of course, that a live performance of a play should be better than reading the script in a book. After all, that's the intended milieu, isn't it?   Perhaps I need to see more plays, if wallet and filofax allow. Nonetheless, watching this version of Top Girls was a pleasant surprise - the best play I saw in Milton Keynes in 2004, and one which I enjoyed far more on stage than I did on the page.

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