An STC production of a Caryl Churchill script is almost a promise of something glittering and sarcastic, like Kip Williams’s two previous Churchill productions with the company, Love and Information (2015) and Cloud Nine (2017). Imara Savage’s opening image of Marlene (Helen Thomson) in an outrageously 80s blue sequinned dress, hair up to here, under a dazzling silver ceiling, even seemed a nod to Williams’s sharp, silent tableaus in both Love and Cloud. However, Top Girls overall lacked a clarity which dulled Churchill’s criticism of the impact class has on feminism, politics, and privilege.
Split into two parts, the first details a fantastical dinner party with Marlene and a collection of women through history. They laugh and drink and reminisce about the highs and more frequent lows of being a woman for pretty much forever. The prolonged scene is clever and wittily written but the literal overlapping of stories and speakers is abrasive and sees the audience’s attention wane as the characters become increasingly harder to hear and follow. Which is a shame considering how dramatic the silent stretches would have been if they were more compellingly earned. Even Contessa Treffone’s crass gags as the barbarian guest weren’t enough to interrupt the tedious exposition and stagnation of movement at this dinner party.
The second half deposits us in solid reality: 1980s Britain where Thatcherism and its magnification of class divides wreaks havoc on notions of a homogenous feminism. And it all plays out through Angie’s (Treffone) plan to kill her working class, down-trodden mother and run away to her ball-busting, corporate Auntie Marlene. The contrast between Joyce (Kate Box) and Marlene, in the way class and privilege have played-out in each woman’s life, is stark and illuminates deeper patterns of pain and oppression in the lives of the women at the dinner party.
The second half allows the actors room to breathe and stretch into their bodies, producing cleaner and more engaging performances. Thomson and Box are dynamic as they bicker and bounce between personal histories and the political future of England housed in the growing tension of a family kitchen late at night. Treffone, as always, brings a warmth to the stage with her authenticity and enthusiasm and connects her mother’s and aunt’s realities gently. Without the harsh and discordant interludes of 80s hair music, the scenes of the last hour would have built to a beautiful distillation of the first part’s anecdotal overload.
As it is, the gentleness of the final moments between family, particularly female family, evokes and, ultimately, carries the refrain of the show, in the face of everything, to just go on.
Top Girls at Sydney Theatre Company’s Drama Theatre runs February 17 – March 24.