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The University of Cumbria’s production of Top Girls marks 35 years since Caryl Churchill’s play was first performed. Its feminist themes are still achingly relevant, and the play’s unique time-hopping structure still has the power to bamboozle and delight modern audiences. It is much to Churchill’s credit that few playwrights have managed to match Top Girls’ inventiveness, unpredictability, or delicate balance between sharp social commentary and sly humour. It is much to the credit of the cast not only that they’d take on such an ambitious and demanding production, but that they manage to pull it off so effectively.
The first and third acts play out as continuous scenes, with the first act lasting a solid 45 minutes in this production. This means actors rarely get a chance to break character, and viewers don’t get the opportunity to reflect on what they’ve seen until the interval. Performing in the round meant this cast were always fully exposed, always in view of someone. To act this long without a break requires both a great memory and endurance.
By contrast, the second act is more fragmented, bouncing between interviews, confrontations and family visits. After the unbroken first act, the more traditional scene-after-scene structure begins to feel unfamiliar. Just as the play uses an all-female cast to challenge the notion that women fit into certain roles or types, the revolutionary use of structure forces audiences to reconsider how they define a play.
The first act takes the form of a dinner party, where ‘top girl’ Marlene has gathered famous historical female figures to celebrate her recent promotion. To call this act bizarre would be an understatement. The guests include a Japanese concubine, a Flemish folklore war-hero, and a Pope, all with their own set of mannerisms, voices, and pantomime costumes. Seemingly, each entry is more outlandish than the last. Modern Marlene looks very tame at the head of the table. She keeps the scene grounded, gently reminding audiences of the social and political context against which the play is set.
The personality clashes are used equally to create comedy and tension. While arguing the finer points of theology, Pope Joan gets suddenly interrupted by the somewhat less civilised Dull Gret, whose outbursts include exclamations such as “Pig!”, “Balls!”, and “Big cock!”.
As the night progresses and the characters get increasingly drunk, the conversation becomes more raucous. Gret’s outbursts become longer and funnier. The whole scene becomes louder, with characters fighting to be heard. The chaos is bewildering and entertaining. What’s more, it can be undercut beautifully to underline a point. When Joan says “I was taken outside and stoned to death” (after she was discovered to be a woman) the conversation suddenly falls silent, leaving the audience just as stunned as the characters on stage.
While the play is injected with deeply affecting moments like these, what keeps it engaging throughout the more confusing sections is comedy.
Dull Gret steals the entire first scene. She doesn’t say much, but makes every action count. She chews violently, drinks from the bottle, requires assistance to tuck a napkin into her breastplate. However, there were times when Gret’s comic turns overshadowed the rest of the cast. Twice she walks around the table, taunting each character she passes. While this is funny, it does distract from what else is happening. When Gret sits back down the audience feel lost. They were so busy watching her antics that they never kept up with the conversation.
Throughout, the naturalistic dialogue proved demanding on the cast. It might sound counter-intuitive, but when you’re performing on a stage, sounding natural is one of the hardest things to do. You’ve still got to project, but at the same time you can’t be so forceful that everything you say sounds unconvincing.
Difficulty balancing acting natural and playing a part is unfortunately something that let this production down. Every now and then a line would be delivered too fast to be understood, to quietly to be heard, or conversely so slick that it became unbelievable. While mistakes were rare and always well recovered, they were enough to break the spell and prevent the audience from getting totally immersed in the world of the play.
The whirlwind pace of the play can also be demanding on the viewers – which is by no means a criticism. Top Girls is a play that thrives on challenging expectations – how should a play be structured? How should society? Is sexism solely an historical issue? Is feminism the best solution? Is sexual prejudice the only cause of patriarchy? Top Girls’ elusive characters and fragmented narrative encourage viewers to more actively engage with what they’re being shown. The play doesn’t preach, it educates. This measured and skilful production stays true to the play’s ambiguities without losing any dramatic impact.
Top Girls is a University of Cumbria production staged at the Dukes theatre, Thursday – Saturday Week 11.