James Ryan Gobuty
There are few plays that can be described as both timely and timeless all at once, but Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is certainly one of them. The show is timely, insofar as Top Girls has its fingers on the pulse of the Thatcher era Britain that spawned it, yet timeless because of its resonances throughout generations. The Shaw Festival definitely took on a challenge when deciding to stage a show that had been described by Mark Ravenhill as “the best play of the past 20 years,” but to this reviewer, it was worth the risk.
Upon entering the Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre, you hear a track of classic 1980s pop songs playing in the background, setting the audience up for a trip back to the past. As the play begins, the actors come out in robes and begin getting dressed and putting on makeup, all while dancing along to Joan Jett and The Eurhythmics. This addition to the show is fitting for a Caryl Churchill piece, as the playwright’s penchant for doubling roles is further magnified here by the complete exposure of the process. As director Vikki Anderson puts it, it is “a reminder of the effort required to take on the ‘role’ of being a woman in the real world.”
Once all the characters are prepared, the play properly begins with its most famous scene: the dinner party at the restaurant. Marlene (Fiona Byrne) has invited some of the “top girls” of various eras to come and celebrate her upcoming promotion, those being the famed 19th century English explorer Isabella Bird (Catherine McGregor), the medieval concubine turned Buddhist nun Lady Nijo (Julia Course), Flemish folk figure Dull Gret (Laurie Paton), the infamous Pope Joan (Claire Jullien), and the medieval literary character Patient Griselda (Tara Rosling). As the ladies sup, they share their tales, replete with shining starts and horrible sacrifices in the end.
The cast also squabbles over the injustices they’ve faced. This scene is pivotal to the play as a whole, because it presents the central question of the show: Is Marlene the historical vindication of all of the strife that these women have been exposed to, or is she just a thoroughly modern manifestation of an age-old phenomenon?
The opening scene also demonstrates one of the biggest challenges in performing Top Girls: the overlapping dialogue. These moments throughout the play create an uneasy cacophony, as voices clamour constantly to be heard. Besides creating an intense theatrical effect, this overlap of dialogue serves to show the struggle between so many competing ideas of what a woman should be and how that struggle breaks down the women fighting it.
Two aspects of Marlene’s life contrast the opening scene: the Top Girls Employment Agency, and the home of her sister Joyce (Tara Rosling) and her daughter Angie (Julia Course). These disparate settings, combined with Churchill’s notorious doubling, provide a strong avenue for these actors to display both the range of their skills, and the range of this play’s scope. At the agency, Marlene’s colleagues Win (Claire Jullien) and Nell (Catherine McGregor) are introduced, and it becomes clear that these three share a ruthless nature. Although the ladies of TGEA seem to be the perfect models for the new Thatcherite woman, it is clear that these characters need to be twice as vicious as their male counterparts if they hope to succeed in the corporate world.
Marlene’s high flying life is set against her working class hometown, wherein Joyce is struggling to raise her daughter Angie, who is dismissed throughout the play as being "slow." In a sense, Top Girls takes Marlene’s personal drama and has it represent the very path that Britain had embarked upon.
Angie (Julia Course) is a crucial character in this play, because she stands in for the person who can’t make it in Marlene’s world. Although Angie dreams of being just like her aunt while playing with her much younger friend Kit (Tess Benger), it is clear that this new dog-eat-dog society would chew her up and spit her out. The childlike innocence of the scenes between Angie and Kit are a sweet refrain from the ruthlessness of the adult world, but they also demonstrate how vulnerable these two are to being crushed by the changing world around them.
The Shaw Festival’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a wonderful rendition of a masterful play. This production is as notable for its innovation as it is for its authenticity. Yet, although the play is very well acted, and the direction is spot on, I can’t help but mention the complete lack of diversity in the cast. It seems inexcusable in 2015, at a major theatre festival, to see all-white casting in a show. What makes it more egregious is that this play is actually completely open to casting, and written by a playwright who has made use of doubling to tackle racial issues exactly like these. I think Top Girls is a great play that was done very well at Shaw, but if we as audience members ignore the prejudices in casting, then we will never see theatre as an art form rise above them.
Top Girls is playing at the Court House Theatre, as part of the Shaw Festival, until Sept. 12. Tickets can be purchased online at www.shawfest.com or by phone at 1-800-511-7429.
photo credit: David Cooper