A man's world
Timothy Ramsden on Caryl Churchill's 'Top Girls'
Does freedom and feminism consist of adapting to the values that have for centuries oppressed your sex?" Director Hettie Macdonald refers to Caryl Churchill's question, which characterises Marlene, a model Thatcherite, who has beaten a male rival to top job in a female recruitment agency.
Macdonald has resisted suggestions she update Churchill's 1982 play, believing it explores a specific time when women had to be like men to succeed in a man's world.
The action begins with Marlene's celebratory restaurant meal. This is very realistic, including the now famous (but then innovatory) dialogue, with its precisely choreographed overlaps creating increasingly alcohol-fuelled chat that nevertheless remains clear in meaning - except that Marlene's guests come from various centuries and different continents. They are united, not by Marlene-like success ("Lady Nijo and Patient Griselda suffered greatly, Nijo thereby having insight into Griselda's behaviour," says Hettie Macdonald), but by triumphing over personal problems.
Top Girls is also about women who are not at the top. There is the silent waitress, whom "no one talks to; they all ignore her, take her for granted, debunking the myth all women stand together, despite the call to arms by Dull Gret, one of the guests".
Churchill never becomes judgmental, but for the remaining two acts she explores the cost of Marlene's success. The heart of the play is Angie, the daughter Marlene left to be brought up as her sister Joyce's girl.
Churchill calls the central act "Angie's story", contrasting her life with Joyce in a rural backwater against Marlene's agency and its confident staff, such as the ambitious Nell.
In the city, we meet such clients as the young fantasist Shona, who sees success in terms of appropriating male behaviour, but who, says Hettie Macdonald, "will go far. She has initiative, is very clever and thinks what she needs is to be as men are. It isn't what she needs, but she has the necessary dynamism and initiative".
And there is the wife of Marlene's defeated rival, pleading for her husband - "significantly she's identified only by his name, as Mrs Kidd".
Joyce doesn't have the choices Marlene has seized, which broadens the play's debate to the questions of who can make choices and what individuals give up in the choices they make. Angie, and written off as a failure by Marlene and Joyce, provides the play's final questioning note: the lone word "frightening".