Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 9 – Aug 3, 2013
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Director: Alice Livingstone
Actors: Sarah Aubrey, Claudia Barrie, Julia Billington, Maeve MacGregor, Ainslie McGlynn, Bishanyia Vincent, Cheryl Ward
Top Girls first appeared on the English stage 31 years ago in the Thatcher era. While feminism has evolved since that time, it is a concept that remains relevant, and to many, still a critically meaningful one. This landmark play is known to posit individual career successes of women as being similar to or even an extension of traditional patriarchy, thus retarding the gains of a common “sisterhood” movement. Times have changed, and Alice Livingstone presents a less critical view of that individual success, although carefully retaining the original intentions in espousing the importance of the collective, as though acknowledging that women’s choices today are all valid in their wild variances.
The surreal first act presents a group of historical women at a dinner party, all talking over one another, as if presenting monologues to very uninterested, self-absorbed listeners. This makes for difficult viewing, but establishes a context for the narrative that follows. This sequence also introduces the actors who very efficiently take over the space with tremendous confidence and in spite of the arduousness of the script, are all fascinating, convincing and importantly, very vigorously rehearsed. When the more conventional narrative begins in Act Two, these women seem to burst into life, presenting characters that are all flesh and blood where everything they say and do seems completely real. Livingstone has a knack for making every second count and every line meaningful. This is a group of actors who cherish every word, and nothing is left to waste. It is indeed an irregular occurrence at the theatre that one gets to be lost in the events unfolding, enthralled in all the action, hungering to see what is about to happen next. Julia Billington and Sarah Aubrey’s sibling rivalry, along with Claudia Barrie and Maeve MacGregor’s youthful innocence are at turns heartbreaking, and glorious.
Getting wrapped up in all the drama, however, runs the risk of distracting from the political arguments of the work. The lack of distance from the show’s magnetic characters almost encourages the audience to wallow too deeply in their individual turmoils, without an opportunity to “see the forest for the trees”. Does the enjoyment of a work like Top Girls have to muffle its subversive reverberations? Or is its agenda able to affect its viewer unconsciously? Regardless of the “big message” that this production’s audience may or may not receive, they will undoubtedly leave this theatre thoroughly sated and utterly invigorated.