Review: Top Girls – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is widely regarded as a classic of 20th Century theatre, an examination of the sacrifices women over the centuries have had to make to become successful in a male dominated environment. However despite this status and the critical plaudits this revival has achieved it is hard, on this showing, to see why.

Churchill never makes things easy for her audiences and Top Girls is no exception. A reverse chronology, fragmented vignettes of plot, and harshly overlapping dialogue are all used to separate it from conventional drama. That’s fine and an audience should be make to work at a drama but here the techniques are used with such relentless fervour that it’s hard to take much away from the piece apart from a sense of frustration and ringing ears.

Things begin with confusion. Successful career woman Marlene is holding a dinner party for women from across history. Whether this is a dream, an allegory, or a manifestation of Marlene’s disturbed mind isn’t clear. It’s also often not clear what is being said with several characters speaking at once in a weird fist-fight of dialogue. Yes, it may be naturalistic but it makes for a tiresome start to the play and things don’t much improve.

Clarity isn’t bettered in subsequent scenes. A sketch set in the Top Girls recruitment agency does give some poignantly accurate observations on the recruitment process of bygone days, but it’s all too little to save the evening. And while a sub plot involving Marlene’s hurriedly fostered daughter does provide some dramatic tension, any real suspense is lost in the quality of the acting and accents in this horribly dated and irrelevant piece.

Touring a play to Suffolk with key scenes set in the county will always test the authenticity of the accents but here the accents veer from Devon and Cornwall via America’s Deep South. It’s not only the East Anglian dialect that comes in for a beating – a Japanese concubine at times sounds like she hails from the shadow of the Berlin Wall.

Director Max Stafford-Clark is seen as the authority of the piece, having directed the original production 30 years ago. Sadly this production does little to justify the revival. Stafford-Clark needs to look at reigning in some of the melodrama in the performances, find a way of presenting the somewhat weak central plot more clearly and work at some of the vocal performances. All too often here the audience are sniggering at the characters when they should be empathising with them.

There are some nice performances among the cacophony; Caroline Catz gives a nicely observed caricature as 80s business woman Marlene and Esther Ruth Elliott’s portrayal of Pope Joan gives a quirky insight into devotion and faith. Victoria Gee, as the Pieter Brueghel the Elder folk character Dull Gret, steals the first act with some beautifully drawn nuances.

Tim Shortall’s design does work well and provides the transition between locales effectively, but a set alone can’t make a production and, while fans of Churchill’s work may revel in the opportunity to see a revival of her most famous piece, it remains hard to understand why this confused muddle receives such acclaim. A case of the Empress’ New (Old) Clothes, perhaps?

Originally written for The Public Reviews

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