Guess who's coming to dinner

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Top Girls By Caryl Churchill, Bolton Octagon, March 20 to April 1.

"As well as being round a table talking to five other dinner guests, you are also eating a three course meal . . . there are challenges in that!" Lawrence Till is thoroughly absorbed in directing Caryl Churchill's Top Girls , a play he regards as one of the greatest of the late-20th century.

On the first day of rehearsal he is setting up the opening act's dinner party - the level of wine in the glasses is proving critical, as is the time taken to serve the food. "At the table there are often three or four conversations at once and the director, me, has to make a decision - what is the dominant conversation?"

The dinner party guests, all "top girls" from history, will not be played as historical personalities but as flesh and blood people - they will bring their intellects to bear. What the audience has to take from the dinner is that the guests will understand subjects differently.

It's about opinions, says Till. The women in the play have incredibly diverse and exciting stories but share common experiences across an enormous range of cultures, geographies and classes. Sacrifice is something they have in common; they have each sacrified for success and their sacrifice has taken great courage.

Audiences take delight in recognising types and situations from the play but the guests themselves are not instantly recognisable. The six people we might each invite, Till thinks, would not necessarily be the same.

The guests are all martyrs and they have mostly subverted the whole area of motherhood. Till's priority will be an understanding of motherhood, and the stage will be dominated by a huge, carved representation of a mother and child.

"It shifts a lot for every scene and Churchill also plays around with time so it's quite important that the audience has a sense of what has gone on before . . . all the scenes are directly or indirectly about motherhood."

Marlene, the pivotal character, is the focus of a lot of success. She's a tough lady. We start with empathy but by the end of the play it is lost. The critical and dispassionate way that Marlene speaks of her own daughter,the child she left in the care of her sister for 16 years, changes our attitude towards her.

Till feels it's important to make a distinction between urban working class and the rural working class of Marlene's family. It has to be about exposure to opportunities and how relationships are made.

"You are not distracted. You marry very locally, you walk to work, your circle of friends is very small. The sense of talking to each other is stronger but narrower. Angie, Marlene's daughter, is described as simple, but that really means she's not got the opportunity to talk, so she's a great observer."

The women who come to the dinner party have snatched their opportunities, but Joyce, Marlene's sister, has never really been given an opportunity. Is Churchill making judgments for us?

"The play sets off to a number of islands for you," says Till. "And you are expected to make imaginative and intellectual bridges, to make connections and to journey on. It's a play that supplies hundreds of questions and very few solutions . . . and ultimately it doesn't make a judgment on any of the women."

Kevin Berry

Box office: 01204 520661

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