Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Girl power down the ages is worth celebrating

Girl power down the ages is worth celebrating

Top Girls | Progress Theatre, Reading | Monday, June 3

CARYL CHURCHILL’S ingenious and entertaining Top Girls is currently being revived at Progress Theatre, with a talented all-female cast and accomplished direction by Beckie Moir.

Top Girls is a fable about ambition versus sacrifice. Businesswoman Marlene (Megan Turnell), head of the “Top Girls” employment agency, is celebrating her birthday in unorthodox fashion with an eclectic group of top girls from the past and from fiction.

Heather Eley was dignified as Japanese concubine, Lady Nijo. Melanie Sherwood was the shrewd and sparky Victorian explorer, Isabella Bird. Sandra Matthew was explosive as Bruegel’s Dull Gret and Anya Valenova elegantly brought to life Chaucer’s patient Griselda. And top marks to Liz Carroll for her uproarious portrayal of Pope Joan. Chat around the dinner table covers changing constructions of women and the changing social and political conditions in which women live.

Family relationships matter to all the characters: each of them have experienced sadness as mothers, wives and sisters. A few bottles of wine down and the conversation becomes increasingly comical and bawdy, as the women toast their extraordinary and varied achievements. Churchill’s technique of overlapping dialogue lends realism to the conversation but requires split-second timing from the cast, who were clearly well-rehearsed. Well done to the costume team for so vividly signifying six distinctive characters from different times and cultures.

From the surreal party, we move into Eighties reality, with Marlene at the top of her game in the workplace. However, Marlene’s sister, Joyce (Chris Moran), struggles to survive in an impoverished rural household. Whilst Marlene is free and wealthy, Joyce is trapped and strapped for cash — not least because she is bringing up Angie (Poppy Price), who is definitely not a “top girl” and whose future looks bleak.

Price is convincing as the needy Angie, supported by a lively performance from Juliet Moir as her young friend Kit. Moran as Joyce movingly conveys that, history aside, life remains challenging for working class women. The sisters don’t get on. Why would they? Anger is what they have in common.

The final act strips Marlene of her professional persona and returns her to her roots, where she has to confront the fact that her glossy lifestyle is partly at other people’s expense. Turnell’s Marlene is strong and sassy, but past secrets come back to bite her and the ending sees her distressed and vulnerable.

The last word, however, belongs to Angie — for Angie, life is simply “frightening”.

This funny and moving production is playing till Saturday.

Susan Creed

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