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Set play

TOP GIRLS. By Caryl Churchill. New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Not only is Caryl Churchill's 1979 play, Top Girls, a modern feminist classic, it is also one of contemporary drama's most daring experiments in form. Yet, as Roxana Silbert, its director, says: "Although the play feels difficult when you read it, it's really clear when you see it on stage." The main plot is about two sisters, Marlene and Joyce, and explores the consequences of what happened after Marlene left home and landed Joyce with the task of looking after Marlene's child, Angie . . . but the story is not told in chronological order.

To make matters more complicated, the play opens with a wonderful fantasy scene, in which Marlene, a successful businesswoman who runs the Top Girls employment agency, holds a dinner party to entertain real and fictional women from history: a Victorian explorer, a Japanese courtesan, Pope Joan, Patient Griselda and Dull Gret, a character from a Breughel painting. "The overlapping dialogues of the opening scene are actually very funny," says Silbert. "Here you have six women who are getting drunker and drunker, and competing to grab the conversation." What's "fascinating about the play is that its women are not seen as oppressed - what you see is women having to make very hard choices, mainly about children". Like any great play, Top Girls is "both of its time and goes beyond that". It is a "critique of capitalist values, which people are beginning to question more and more". and an account of "the split that exists for women between professional success and domestic happiness. This is now uch more in the popular media, with shows such as Ally McBeal, and the dilemma has increased because more and more women go to work." Churchill shows us Marlene in three different environments: at work, at home and at a party, and she's very different in each one, says Silbert. When she's in a party situation, "and surrounded by all these mad women from history, she barely gets a word in edgeways".

Played by Amanda Drew (pictured above), Marlene has been "cast quite young, aged 32, which is what she's meant to be - in previous productions she was played by older actors. She should be young, sexy, sassy, bright. There are a lot of things about her that are admirable - but she also has no intimate relationships of any kind. She's not happy; she's in pain." There are aspects of her "that are unlikeable - she's hard, ambitious - but when she's at home she's an emotional mess". Marlene "doesn't want to talk about things like gynaecology. She's disconnected from her body. In the play, that's seen as a source of trouble." She has an enormous amount of guilt about leaving Angie, but she also has a lot of fondness for her, says Silbert.

The character of 15-year-old Angie prompts the question: what does this sort of child do in a competitive modern world? "She's not without talent, but she hasn't got the materialistic drive or academic success that would allow her to follow Marlene. One of the big questions in the play is what happens to those women who aren't middle-class and educated," says Silbert.

Aleks Sierz

Top Girls runs from October 27 to November 17Box office: 01782 717 962

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