Review: Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill, Mercury Theatre, Colchester, until November 17.

You might think the whole thing is a dream and one suspects director Gari Jones probably has something like this in mind, because the first two acts have a lot of the

madness sleep can bring, the fantasies, the illusions, the delusions.

He has lent the piece an air of abstraction and insubstantiality that somehow always seems a step away from reality. But the third part is real life for sure. A wake-up call for Marlene, the newly-appointed managing director of Top Girls employment agency.

As a woman who’s smashed the glass ceiling, Marlene needs to celebrate, so she invites a few friends to a slap-up dinner – but they’re not your average run-of-the-mill party-girls. Instead, she conjures them dreamily out of history, all of them dressed in their time and with stories to tell about their place in a man’s world.

There’s Pope Joan from AD 855 with her staff and mitre, Dull Gret who has stepped out of Brueghel’s painting, Lady Nijo, a 12th century Japanese concubine; Isabella Bird, a remarkable Victorian traveller and Patient Griselda who features in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

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This is an absurdist idea that cleverly allows playwright Churchill to explore the role of women down the centuries but these characters banter, interrupt and laugh a lot, always looking to score points in a very modern manner as they unveil stories of heartbreak and courage, sometimes in an almost throwaway fashion.

Pope Joan dressed in male clothes from a boy because that was the only way she could get an education and, being bright, was eventually made a cardinal and then pontiff. Shuna Snow’s Joan is wonderfully self-deprecating as she tells how she was finally found out and stoned to death.

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With Amy Stacy as the waitress, the other dinner guests are played with equal strength and some humour by Nadia Morgan, Clare Humphrey, Amanda Haberland and Kristin Hutchinson who, in act two, then play all the other parts, becoming interviewers or jobseekers as we watch Marlene in Top Girls boss mode. We are also introduced to her sister Joyce and the disturbed daughter Angie.

Marlene is beautifully played by Gina Isaac who has to find a wide range of emotions, especially in the bitter final act which underlines that, just like her party friends from the past, her life, too, demands sacrifice.


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