Review: Top Girls

Jenni Reid 12 March 2012

Top Girls

Fitzpatrick Hall, 11pm, until Sat 10th March


Caryl Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’ is a weird and witty play exploring the lives of colourful, tough women and the price they pay for their successes; the script is a tough call for any potential production, and BATS’ performance was safely staged and solidly acted, but ultimately failed to deliver any real dramatic punch.

The play is set in the early 80s and strongly tied to ideas about Thatcher’s Britain and whether or not, as the newly-promoted business woman Marlene believes, “anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes”. The first act is a surreal affair inviting the audience into a dinner party attended by a variety of women from throughout history. Jesse Haughton-Shaw as Victorian traveller Isabella Bird, Jasmine Lynn as Japanese concubine Lady Nijo and Adam Smith as Marlene shone in this scene, perfectly capturing the sense of the boozy dinner party slowly falling apart. Meanwhile, it was the turn of Rosie Morgan and Laura Hull to really show off their acting talent in Act 2 as the disturbed children Angie and Kit, and their scene together was one of the play’ss strongest, conveying a darkness tempered by childhood innocence.

An unusual directorial decision was to have three men feature in an all-woman play. It was interesting to see Smith as Marlene, especially since such a key question of the play is whether Marlene has had to sacrifice her sexuality as part of her rise to success. The part was acted well, and the gender-reversal did not become a distraction. To have a man play the light-hearted office-worker Nell was also successful, adding an extra touch of comedy and allowing for a slightly exaggerated portrayal of a gossipy career woman who doesn’t want to be tied down. Where casting a man in drag did became a distraction, however, was during a scene in which the wife of the man Marlene has beaten to a promotion confronts her over the issue and accuses her of being “one of those women”. This is an important scene in the play, one that can be both sad and perceptive, but any effectiveness it might have had to these ends was lost by having the character played by a man in a blonde wig and a flowery dress. It elicited laughs from the audience (and indeed the actors themselves) but seemed entirely unnecessary and meant it was unable for the scene to be taken seriously at all.

The play felt itself dragging at times, with the actors not bringing quite enough energy to their performances to keep the slower scenes engaging. Some of the voices were weak which meant that scenes which should have had more poignancy – such as one which gives a brief insight into the life of a woman who has sacrificed her life for a career – lacked it. The play’s final scene, which should inject a much-needed bit of drama and emotion into Top Girls, had potential, but despite solid acting from Smith, Hull and especially Haughton-Shaw, it did not manage to build the atmosphere or tension it needed. There was a distinct lack of the sisterly juxtaposition between Marlene and Joyce which should have been central to this scene, perhaps one of the downsides to casting Marlene as a man.

This production of Top Girls is by no means badly acted or directed, but nor will it blow you away. It certainly has strong moments, and the cast dealt well with a script which often requires the actors to talk over one another. However, what is missing is a point at which the audience really begin to feel anything for the characters or the issues raised, making it a somewhat unsatisfying viewing experience.

Jenni Reid