If you could invite five famous women from history to a dinner party, who would you pick?
Marlene, the savvy businesswoman of Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls chooses a colourful bunch of real and fictional figures to wine and dine.
In attendance at Marlene’s soiree is Pope Joan, an English woman of medieval legend who masqueraded as a man; Lady Nijo, an Emperor’s courtesan and Buddhist nun; and Victorian traveller Isabella Bird. Also joining the festivities is Patient Griselda, a rags-to-riches peasant from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and Dull Gret, the subject of a painting by Brueghel.
These six women unite to celebrate Marlene’s promotion at the employment agency where she works. Julia Billington leads the charge as “ball breaker” Marlene, a 1980s businesswoman who commands the stage in a killer red dress and matching manicure.
The highlight of Alice Livingstone’s production of Top Girls is the fine acting from the ensemble cast, and it’s a pleasure watching these fierce yet graceful performers in action.
Each actress creates a convincing portrait of their respective historical figure, while also echoing Marlene’s hidden desires. All six women have sacrificed and suffered in their quest for power. Like Pope Joan, Marlene attempts to suppress all signs of weakness, and Bird’s tales of travel reflect Marlene’s sense of wanderlust.
Despite the impressive performances in Act One, the overlapping dialogue trips over itself and is irritating in its execution. This lengthy scene stagnates and the production could benefit by embracing the New Theatre stage space in its entirety. The set design also disappoints – the leafy green colour scheme would be better suited to a dinner party hosted by Kermit the Frog.
In Act Two, the play jumps to the house of Marlene’s working-class sister Joyce and to the Top Girls employment agency. The actresses play dual roles in these scenes. Sarah Aubrey, who captured the dignity of Pope Joan is impeccable as Joyce, and Claudia Barrie is strange and wonderful as her daughter Angie.
It’s not long until the tensions between Marlene’s personal and professional life come to a head – she may have moved to a bigger office at work but she has turned her back on her family.
In light of Julia Gillard’s fall from power, Churchill’s 1982 play maintains its modern edge. Although the production is lengthy and flawed, Top Girls is a thought-provoking and welcome addition to the Sydney stage.
Top Girls is at the New Theatre in Newtown until August 3. Bookings: newtheatre.org.au.