Review: Top Girls by Caryl Churchill, Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, Saturday Feb 4

Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill, Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, Saturday Feb 4 and at New Wolsey Theatre from February 21- 25

A CHALLENGING night at the theatre is Top Girls: surreal, political and replete with expletives of the darkest hue.

From its opening act, in which a disparate group of women from across history gather to celebrate one modern woman’s career triumph, it regularly prompts its audience to think hard about social issues.

Marlene, played by the excellent Caroline Catz, is at the centre of the drama, celebrating her elevation to managing director of an employment agency.

Her victory over the other women – and crucially, men – at work has prompted the gathering.

The dinner is a spectacular, now iconic scene, with each guest arriving in period costume, from the Japanese splendour of concubine Lady Nijo (Alix Dunmore) to the medieval peasant garb of Victoria Gee’s comical Dull Gret.

It is an act laced with tragedy, as the women – who also include female Pope Joan and Victorian adventuress Izabella Bird - tell their tales, most of which involve a torrid time at the hands of patriarchal societies. And yet there are a surprising number of laughs.

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Tellingly, the act concludes in a free-for-all, where any unity there was between the women has disintegrated into a drunken display which is both hilarious and sad.

Top Girls’ real story unfolds in acts two and three. Marlene, notably obnoxious towards the waitress in act one, now shows how she clawed her way to the top and the sacrifices she made. That Marlene has had to give up so much is more a commentary on society than on her. Period detail and characters are superbly drawn, with power-dressed Esther Ruth Elliott (Louise), Helen Bradbury (Nell) and Dunmore (Win) capturing the mores of a 1980s office environment.

The real heart of this play exists in the domestic lives of the “unsuccessful” woman Joyce (Kirsten Hazel Smith), her “daughter” Angie, lovingly created by Gee and school friend Kit (Emma Sainsbury).

This production was accompanied by subtitles, which helped with the rapid-fire dialogue, even for those not hard-of-hearing: characters talk over each other a lot in Top Girls, in a very naturalistic way. The subtitles also provided an unintentionally funny moment when they announced (in brackets) that the characters had begun to speak in a Suffolk accent.

When they change the description to “West Country” in Cheltenham this week, the subtitles may be closer to the truth.

Accent quibbles aside, though; this play – although a bit politically quaint round the edges these days – is now part of the canon, on the school syllabus and well worth catching.

Mark Crossley