The girls are tops

4th April 1997 at 01:00

Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Glasgow

With admirable timing, the RSAMD last week revived Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, her celebration and cautionary tale for women who break through the glass ceiling, written at the time Mrs Thatcher was making it to Number 10. As one of the characters forecasts, "the Eighties are going to be stupendous"; it certainly seems so for Marlene, promoted to MD of the Agency.

To celebrate, she throws the dinner party from hell and heaven too. Her guest list: Pope Joan, whose male impersonation ended abruptly when she gave birth in the street during a papal procession; Lady Nijo, in her teens concubine to the Japanese Emperor, and who afterwards became an ambulant Buddhist nun; the ever-patient Griselda, Chaucer's tongue-in-the-cheek proposal for the perfect wife; one of those intrepid Victorian lady travellers; and Dull Gret, still wearing the armour and apron Brueghel painted her wearing as she led her women on the charge through hell.

Churchill does not skimp on the dinner-table conversation: the life-styles chime or jar, and there are husbands, lovers and children to be remembered. At the same time, this top table sets a cosmic perspective for what is to follow, an inquiry into the condition of "liberated women" in contemporary society.

The agency that Marlene now heads is an Employment Agency, staffed by and catering for women, which gives the author every chance to cover the territory.

At the same time, it gives the juiciest opportunity to the students. Kari Taylor, for example, can charm us in her kimono in the first scene, and then come back seven centuries later with another cleanly spoken character, this time one who has had choice, and has chosen compromise. And how many times does an actress get the chance to play the Pope?

Even so, the production saved its best moments for the last scene, where the high-climbing Marlene (Lorraine Blyth) comes back to her embittered sister (Karen Morris), who in near-poverty has brought up Marlene's daughter (Leona McKay) as her own. These three find the emotional truth of their roles.

Drama colleges are under-rated assets. Top Girls is the fifth modern European play the college has staged in its two theatres this term. The zest and commitment of the actors-in-training makes the RSAMD a particularly appealing venue for schools. Well-sited in what has become Glasgow's entertainment zone, it is a pointer to what Queen Margaret can look for in their new Gateway Theatre at the top of Leith Walk.

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