It is forty years since Caryl Churchill’s play first hit the stage and with this anniversary production, director Suba Das has been allowed artistic licence to relocate some of the action from Suffolk to Liverpool 8.
Marlene (Tala Gouveia) is at the top of her game as the new Managing Director of Top Girls Employment Agency in the glitz and glamour of 1980s London, with a stylised and surreal opening sequence seeing her host an extraordinary dinner party, assisted by a waitress (Kaila Sharples), to celebrate her achievements with five legendary women, some real, some imagined: Isabella Bird (Elizabeth Twells); Lady Nijo (Nadia Anim); Dull Gret (Sky Frances) of Brueghel fame; Pope Joan (Lauren Lane); and Griselda (Ailsa Joy) straight out of Chaucer, to draw upon their old world experiences of being a woman in a man’s world.
Lessons learned, we move into the cut and thrust of recruitment where Marlene’s team, Nell (Joy) and Win (Lane), take us through the peculiarities of interviews with Jeanine (Frances), Louise (Twells), and Shona (Frances), before Marlene forcefully dispatches Mrs Kidd (Twells) whose husband was overlooked for her promotion.
But there is another world occupied by sister Joyce (Alicya Eyo), her daughter Angie (Saffron Dey), and her friend Kit (Anim), that throws up a different reality, and should they collide then two tribes may well go to war…
A key strength of the play is Churchill’s stylist technique of overlapping dialogue and non-linear storyline, so it is a shame that the cast, particularly in the opening dinner party scene, were unable to serve up the necessary frisson, with much lost as a result of over-caricatured portrayals. Due to a family bereavement, there was a very late casting change which introduced Twells to the proceedings and who interestingly, armed with script in hand – not that she had much need of it – offered the strongest performance of the evening: there was clearly not enough time for her to succumb to directorial influence and accordingly she delivered the lines as intended.
This disconnection sadly continued into the subsequent agency scenes where, with the exception of Twells, poise and point were lost in performances that often hinted at Monty Python and at other times…well, let’s not go there. It also threw up another anomaly as the play in its original presentation relied upon doubling up which allowed an echo of similarity or contrast between characters portrayed by the same actor to be carried through the scenes but for some inexplicable reason they have been juggled differently here and as a result that hoped for effect is lost.
The switch to a local setting makes sense – and it is pleasing to note that Churchill agreed to script amendments – however there is a lack of consistency with the approach adopted which retains references to the nature of Suffolk that certainly wouldn’t fly on the mudflats of the River Mersey.
The set was well considered from dinner party settings through descending office furniture to the backyard of a two-up two-down with costumes matching their respective period and occasion. The musical references were appropriate and supported the piece rather than dominating it, but the blocking needs another look: the thrust stage at the Everyman offers challenge but also opportunity yet here too often characters were facing away from all three sides of the audience.
From a play that focuses on the harsh realities of life and the price of success, our thoughts and prayers are with Natalie Thomas and family at this difficult time.
Top Girls plays at Liverpool Everyman through to Saturday 25th March, further details https://www.everymanplayhouse.com/whats-on/top-girls
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 8th March 2023
North West End UK Rating: ★★★