Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? It’s a game I’m sure we’ve all played, probably on long car journeys where saying ‘are we there yet?’ has long gotten boring. Well, Progress Theatre brings that game to the stage in a much more exciting way this week with their vivid production of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 feminist showpiece, Top Girls.
Power-suited career woman Marlene (Megan Turnell) has just been promoted to managing director at her recruitment agency and celebrates with a boozy dinner alongside five impressive women from history, some real (Fiery Victorian explorer Isabella Bird and the dainty Lady Nijo, a 12th Century concubine to the Emperor of Japan), some mythical (Pope Joan) and some definitely fictional (Patient Griselda from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales).
This opening scene is a sensational piece of writing: riotously funny, honest and slightly barmy, with each woman unravelling their story while chugging an impressive amount of white wine. At the root of each story is a quiet tragedy showing how much these women of history had to sacrifice to succeed in a man’s world, particularly when it comes to having children. ‘Will Marlene have to do the same to survive at the top of her career?’ it seems to be asking.
The cast is clearly having a ball here, with stupendous comic timing, lots of cross talk over each other and laughs coming in waves from the audience. They’re frequently for Pope Joan, played with a batty exuberance by Liz Carroll, who spurts broken Latin and throws up in the cupboard, or at Sandra Matthew as Dull Gret, (a character from a painting by Bruegel, seen leading an army of women to pillage Hell), who sketches hilarity with barely a word thanks to some fabulous physical and facial comedy – often while eating potatoes.
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a story in three acts, but really it’s three plays in one, each with a different style. After that surreal opening act, the play becomes more naturalistic with every scene, drawing us towards the quiet tragedy in Marlene’s own life. It leads to a jarring shift in tone for those unfamiliar with the play, who may be expecting the comedy to continue throughout. But the story is strong and touching enough to keep us gripped.
We move on to a rapid paced Working Girl-style corporate comedy at the Top Girls agency, where we hear the ambitions of working women in the early ‘80s from a strong rotation of short job interviews – the most affecting of which is Ali Carroll as Louise, who’s given everything to her mid-management job, but sees herself getting overtaken in the role by younger employees.
This is balanced out with what seems like an unrelated story of Marlene’s niece Angie growing frustrated with her teenage life in Suffolk before running away to stay with her glamorous aunt in London. It is held together by a childlike, heartfelt performance by Poppy Price as Angie.
The play draws to a close in a family secret-revealing kitchen sink drama with a flashback to Marlene’s visit home to her sister two years before. Here Christine Moran stands out as Marlene’s working class older sister Joyce. She’s a bristling single mother wrought with pent up anger at her younger sister for the disparity in their lives and for Marlene’s harsh, ‘greed is good’ view of success. Something which would leave the ‘stupid, or lazy or frightened’, perhaps like young Angie, on the bottom of the pile.
As Marlene, Megan Turnell takes centre stage. She moves with a determined ease, speaking in a clipped business-like rush, as if even pausing for breath is a waste of money. There’s also some particularly amusing drunk acting as she stumbles around the dinner party, brandy in hand, domineering the silent waitress. By the end of the play, we see what’s driving this ambitious and bossy life of the party in a powerful face off with her sister Joyce, where it’s clear that one woman’s success doesn’t help all women.
Director Rebecca Moir’s love for Churchill’s play is clear, along with her obvious affection for the 1980s. A serious power playlist of Adam and the Ants, Cyndi Lauper and more blasts out between acts, there’s a fabulous neon sign adorning the stage and the costume department have gone all out on peplum tops, shoulder pads and white stilettos. In an extra fun touch, there are also boxes of ‘80s memorabilia, from Smash Hits annuals to Troll Dolls, in the lobby for the audience to reminisce over in the two 15-minute intervals.
While the play asks us to question the role of women and success in Thatcher’s Britain, Moir cleverly ties this to 2019 by opening the show with a recording of Michelle Obama on her recent Becoming book tour, the voiceover declaring that: “the world still isn’t geared up for women”.
It’s a neat reminder that as much as the world has changed since 1982, Churchill’s words haven’t dated today. As Joyce says to her sister, ‘nothing’s changed for most people, has it?’. Head to Progress Theatre this week and dive in to this hilarious yet touching ‘80s revival, backed by a powerful script worth revisiting.
Top Girls is at Progress Theatre from Monday 3 – Saturday 8 June, 7.45pm. Tickets are £12. Buy tickets online.
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.