Enjoyable but over-rated and elitist: Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls reviewed

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

Caryl Churchill’s best-known play, Top Girls, owes a large debt to 1970s TV comedy. It opens with a Pythonesque dinner party in which noted female figures from myth and history get drunk while swapping gags and stories. We meet a Victorian explorer, an emperor’s concubine, a 16th-century Flemish battle-axe and a long-suffering Italian peasant girl. The scene has no internal logic or dramatic direction and, just like a Python routine, it’s besotted with its own inventiveness and it relies on erudite banter and verbal shocks to sustain our interest. The central figure, Pope Joan, is thought to have served as pontiff in the 9th century, and she delivers a tragi-comic account of a papal ceremony during which she gave birth to a child and was stoned to death by an outraged mob. The sketch ends with her puking over the floorboards.

Next, the action shifts to an unconnected scene — a jump-cut technique also used by Python — in which two young girls bicker competitively about sex. Their amusingly frank exchanges might have been cribbed from The Liver Birds, a flatshare comedy by Carla Lane about two sexually liberated girls. Another jump-cut takes us to a busy recruitment office in London run by a glamorous all-powerful sex-goddess, Marlene, who makes men quake with terror. When she wins promotion over a male colleague, he has a nervous breakdown and sends his wife to the office to beg Marlene to step down in his favour. ‘Piss off,’ she retorts in her cut-glass accent. Marlene is clearly a facsimile of Margo Leadbetter, a role played by Penelope Keith in the BBC sitcom The Good Life which ran from 1975 to 1978. In the final scene, Marlene’s chic cosmopolitan life is contrasted, rather schematically, with the drudgery of her sister who toils as a cleaner while raising a narky and ungrateful teenage girl. This muddled and sometimes amusing play argues that women are condemned by history to work as nameless serfs on behalf of their arrogant male overlords. Their only hope is to rise up, like Margo/Marlene, and crush the enemy.

And yet the play reveals a fracture in its own argument. The opening scene presents us with celebrated females who have shrugged aside their bondage and asserted their individuality. Their booze-a-thon is facilitated by silent underlings who serve the wine and mop up the vomit as well. The programme lists them under the generic label ‘waitress’ or ‘ensemble’. They have no names. This seems to confirm that Churchill is an old-fashioned elitist whose admiration is reserved for women who are smart, plucky and well-educated. Females without brains or spirit? Sod them.

Lyndsey Turner directs an enjoyable version of this over-rated work. It’s a shame that she allows her actors to speak over each other’s lines in a bid for naturalism which obscures some of the dialogue. The settings are beautifully rendered by Ian MacNeil. The exquisite Amanda Lawrence plays Pope Joan as a lovable geeky bookworm. Liv Hill (Angie) is hilarious as the damaged teenager who wants to murder her mum with a brick and run away to London. Katherine Kingsley (Marlene) looks every inch the new Penelope Keith. And Wendy Kweh gives a persuasive account of Lady Nijo, a giggling floozie who believes that men outrank women and that the occasional whipping is a normal part of married life. This portrait of a docile Asian dollybird might have come straight out of The Dick Emery Show.

Intra Muros is a French import by the actor/director Alexis Michalik. It begins as a comedy of manners about a drama workshop held in a maximum security jail where a troupe of luvvies try to teach rapists and killers how to ‘act, darling’. Plenty of laughs follow as the surly, cynical criminals come face to face with the histrionic self-absorption of the thesps: two forms of narcissism colliding head-on. Hilarious. The story becomes more densely layered as the chief lags, Kevin and Angel, relate their personal histories, but their biographies are confused by an earlier role-playing game which obliged them to swap identities. It’s a struggle to keep tabs on what’s happening.

Eventually it emerges that the drama course is itself an ingenious imposture arranged by a relative who wants one of the murderers to face up to his complex past. The director, Che Walker, has done an impressive job with this multi-faceted drama and his comic stagings of sex-scenes are particularly ingenious. He takes a risk by awarding himself the key role of Richard, the drama facilitator, but he plays it with charm and aplomb. Summer Strallen is excellent as his fellow-thesp and they’re brilliantly supported by Victor Gardener (Angel), a titanic chap who must weigh as much as a fork-lift truck and who looks like a figure of Atlas chipped from the side of a mountain.

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