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It's tough being the boss

TOP GIRLS By Caryl Churchill Plymouth Theatre Royal Salisbury Playhouse

"It's a series of arguments, a series of views of women, and it's powerful because of the form more than the content." So says Jonathan Church, latest director of Caryl Churchill's 1982 play.

Promoted to head Top Girls, a private employment agency (more impressive for a woman then than now), Marlene celebrates with a party - it may be a dream - with famous women from history and art. They tell of their lives through the play's major technical innovation: precisely choreo-graphed, overlapping dialogue.

These extraordinary women overshadow Marlene's achievement; if she's shown realising this it makes her more sympathetic. Yet their lives were affected by men. In this all-female play the few men referred to are weak, like the unfit Howard Kidd whom Marlene pipped for the top post. His wife appears at the agency in act two to suggest Marlene surrender her new job but there's no moral high ground in the scene. Mrs Kidd's old-fashioned wifely hinting is unreasonable but Marlene, like her principal henchwomen when dealing with other characters, is openly unpleasant. The idea women must become like ruthless men to succeed gives the play a period feel.

It also shows what Marlene gave up when her supposed niece Angie (Catriona Hinds) turns up out of the blue. The final act shifts back a year. Marlene returns to her East Anglian roots at Angie's instigation. Clues from the middle act are picked up; we learn Angie is the daughter Marlene abandoned for a career, leaving her sister Joyce to bring the child up.

Churchill ends with an argument between the sisters, Joyce and Marlene, on the surface largely political, left v right, "It's really about sibling rivalry and what they haven't been able to say to each other - though politics is a barrier. When Marlene suggests stopping the row, Joyce won't let her off the hook."

Marlene is played by the forceful actor Patti Love. "Marlene is forceful but unstable and can appear desperate. Joyce (Suzanne Crawley) is very centered, " says Church.

Neither is completely in the clear, however. "A bit of Marlene really wants her daughter. Joyce knows herself better but is underachieving and struggling with money problems and her sister's child."

Plymouth Drum to October 17 (tel: O1752 267222) then Salberg Studio, Salisbury Playhouse October 22-November 7 (tel: Ol722 32O333). Contact theatres for details of associated education programme

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