New Wolsey saves you a seat at dinner party with a difference

As some of the most powerful and eccentric women from myth and history sit down for dinner in 80s Britain, entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE talks to their host; Doc Martin actress Caroline Catz.

Pope Joan, stoned to death after giving birth; Lady Nijo, Japanese mistress of an emperor and later a Buddhist nun; Victorian explorer Isabella Bird, the patient wife from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Dull Gret from an oil painting by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Not your usual dinner party guests.

As Caryl Churchill’s ground-breaking drama Top Girls plays out, you find their host, the ruthless Marlene - part feminist, part Margaret Thatcher Acolyte - has more in common with them than you think. Not just the inequalities and conflicts they’ve faced as a result of their gender.

Max Stafford-Clark’s critically acclaimed new production comes to the New Wolsey from February 21-25 following its sell-out run at Chichester Festival Theatre and triumphant West End transfer.

It’s Thatcher’s England and hard-nosed, go-getting businesswoman Marlene is hosting a dinner party to celebrate her promotion to MD of the Top Girls Employment Agency. Her guests? Powerful and eccentric women from myth and history who have inspired her.

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Learning more about Marlene’s story, it’s a provocative study of success and what happens to those left behind.

“It [the play] has a lot of food for thought, asks a lot of uncomfortable, difficult questions. At the same time it’s very entertaining, very funny,” says Caroline Catz, well known for playing Louisa in five series of Doc Martin alongside other long-term roles on The Vice, Murder in Suburbia and All Quiet on the Preston Front as well as theatre work including Six Degrees of Separation. “It’s the first play I ever read that got me really excited about theatre; I’ve always wanted to play this part [of Marlene].”

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Written in 1982, she says its themes are still relevant today.

“We’re seeing manifestations of Thatcherism all around us aren’t we? Funding cuts, riots, the current Government emphasis on individualism. We’re seeing yet again our public services being eroded and sold off and Marlene represents this sort of ongoing emphasis on financial gain over societal commitments. Her role in the play questions how we measure success.”

Caroline says it addresses all the contradictions of the 80s; in some ways a good time for women.

There were more university places and the Sex Discrimination Act had outlawed discrimination in employment, education and training.

Yet feminists were feeling the subversive potential of the 70s had been lost; women in the 80s still had low paid jobs and earnings fell behind men. Times hadn’t really changed much at all.

“Under Thatcher the poverty gap widened, as under our coalition government. She was the first female prime minister, but said ‘what has feminism ever done for me’? Yet her story is of a dedicated professional triumphing over sexist prejudice. It was very confusing era and I think Caryl addresses this brilliantly,” says Caroline.

“She talks about equality and do we really want to be the same as men; is that what we’re really asking for? She asks difficult questions in the play which are still completely, absolutely, the questions we all still have to ask ourselves.

“Equality based on sameness... you can’t achieve equality by acting as if we’re the same as men and we’ve seen what it produces - total exhaustion. It’s a play about priorities, personal and societal as much as it is a critique of bourgeois feminism in the 80s and that’s relevant to today.

“Mothers and fathers are still not provided with adequate childcare options, pay’s still not equal, society as a whole still doesn’t value domestic work along with career goals. There’s still disparities in gender and class.”

Put in Marlene’s shoes, would she invite her of any previous screen or stage roles round for dinner?

“No, I know them too well,” she laughs.

It’s something the whole cast have thought of during rehearsals, coming up with tons of lists and all sort of people.

Caroline, though, would like to invite the play’s characters along with writer Churchill.

“I would love to just stand back, take Marlene out of the equation, be at the table as me and put Caryl in Marlene’s place; I think that would be the best dinner party.”

The actress could always fill any awkward silences with a sing song; after all, she was in the folk group Monoland, later renamed Sapphire. She even sang with rock combo The Jesus and Mary Chain for a folk rendition of the song Just Like Honey and later Sometimes Always.

“We [Monoland] used to do lots of gigs and made a couple of records; it was a good band. It was kind of like a weird folkish trio but we were just guitar drums and vocals; we had no bass player which used to annoy people but we quite liked it.

“Then we made an album under the name of Sapphire - I’m not quite sure why we changed the name - but we had tons of instruments and we just made this album we wanted to make; we never got a record deal.

“Years later a friend of mine in The Jesus and Mary Chain were asking for guest people when they were on tour to do a couple of songs with them. When they were at The Roundhouse they said ‘would you like to do Just Like Honey and Sometimes Always’ and I said yes. That was fantastic, I loved it; it was great.”

Any plans to give the acting a rest and go back to the music?

“No, I love what I do too much.”

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