Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Imara Savage
Looking at statement theatre works retrospectively can be both interesting and sad. Tops Girls by Caryl Churchill was written and first presented in 1982 The recurring theme in the first scene of this bold and ‒ in its era ‒ innovative eighties theatre piece is that all the strong and disparate women gathered round a celebratory dining table tragically judge their lives by the rules of the men of their eras.
Whether it is the adventurous concubine Lady Nijo (Michelle Lim Davidson), the recently promoted eighties business woman Marlene (Helen Thomson), the completely obedient Lady Griselda (Paula Arundell) or, one would think, the ultimate glass-ceiling smashing Pope Joan (Heater Mitchell) ... to name just a handful of the fabulous historic and fictional characters in Top Girls, they are all slightly disappointed and/or ashamed of their lives.
Why? Well, the over-riding theme is that (almost) all of Top Girl’s characters have had their children taken or have had to give them up to reach their career and lifestyle heights and even then be uncertain of their gains. Griselda may have been taken from a slum and made an aristocrat but she still believes that she must obey her husband unequivocally, even when he cruelly steals her children as a means to test her loyalty. Lady Nijo gave up a number of children at birth without question but is only really disturbed by having had to give up the male child and, back to the eighties, the wife of Marlene’s defeated professional competitor truly believes Marlene should step down because hubby will be humiliated to report to a woman!
Pope Joan feels disappointed even on a theological level. In addition to losing a child under grizzly circumstances, Joan believes that though accepted as Pope here on earth, God knows her secret and this is why ‘He’ does not deign speak to her!
In Top Girls, clever use of sets (by David Fleischer) as much as dialogue conveys the political dilemmas that are constantly faced by our Top Girls. When we meet Marlene in a sleekly professional context as the newly promoted manager of a recruitment agency we are troubled that she advises her female clients to not reveal their age or their plans to have children. Marlene has smashed a glass ceiling recently, yet we sadly realise she already intends to play the same old game.
Another set transports us in the claustrophobic kitchen of Marlene’s sister Joyce (Kate Box), the sister who didn’t escape their small country town upbringing. It is in the kitchen that the revelation occurs of Marlene’s teenage pregnancy. Marlene's 'niece' Angie (Contessa Treffone) is the child she gave away to pursue a better life.
So much has changed even since the 80’s – look at the fabulous New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern normalising pregnancy in the top job – yet this is still the exception and not the rule.
Churchill does a great job suggesting the lives of all these women; the losses and the gains that occur when important life choices are made. It is an interesting work to consider in the twenty first century where men, women, young, old and automation are all competing for those jobs.
Sydney Theatre Company presents Top Girls
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
until 24 March