Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls was written in 1982, at a time when Great Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had driven the country into a deep recession, raised taxes and saw the unemployment levels spike to higher than three million people, its highest levels since the 1930s. It was a time when the feminist questions became intensely more intricate. What responsibility did a powerful woman have to the rest of her sex? Was being a strong, powerful working woman simply the ability to act in a characteristically masculine way and to uphold traditional male chauvinistic values or did it require an entire reworking of our collective understanding of power, of leadership and strength?
I’m going to do something a bit unorthodox and begin my review of LunaSea Theatre’s production of this play by starting at the end because the final scene is absolutely perfect. Martha Irving plays Marlene, a bright, ambitious, successful woman climbing the ranks at an employment agency in London. She sits in the shabby, sparse little kitchen of her past with her sister, Joyce, played by Mauralea Austin, and Churchill brilliantly brings the issues surrounding Thatcher’s political ideologies into the home and allows them to seep into the personal, intimate relations between these two women, one “professional” and one “domestic,” not surprisingly with volatile results. Which woman has made the larger sacrifice and which one reaps the greater rewards? Marlene believes strongly in self determination, of pulling herself up by the bootstraps and that those who are naturally able to rise out of poverty will and the others deserve to be left behind. Joyce believes in a collective and social responsibility and that the external factors imposed on people by the world and their lot in life must be taken into consideration when judging the able bodied and determining the worth and value of a human life. Austin gives Joyce a worn exhaustion, her bitterness at living every day at her very wits end are palpable, but her heart, her care, her propensity for acceptance shines through in the most heart wrenching of ways. Irving’s Marlene is continually justifying herself, her choices, burying her self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy deep under her superficial accomplishments and empty rhetoric. Their inability to connect and to concede and validate one another’s experience speaks volumes of the feminist question we still grapple with to this day. How do we balance being feminist whilst working within a professional world that man created and how do we balance being feminist at home, a sphere largely considered historically to belong to women, yet still, ultimately, a male-created dichotomy? Is feminism our taking ownership and pride in the ability to play just as well by the men’s rules or is it seeking to take charge and make our own? Marlene and Joyce do not have the answers.
The play begins with a fictitious, drunken dinner party, imagined by Marlene as a celebration of her promotion. She sits at a banquet table filled with “top girls” from history including Victorian adventurer, Isabella Bird, Pope Joan and Lady Nijo from Japan. The women span continents and centuries and often all regale Marlene with their stories and strong opinions on children, politics, religion and men, overtop of one another, each one competing for the audience’s attention. This scene can prove frustrating for audiences, but it is widely fascinating, especially in the “survival of the fittest” ambiance that Churchill is playing with. It is impossible to hear every word that is said in this scene, so it is likely easiest for audiences to just allow themselves to get swept up in whichever character they feel the most drawn to at any given moment, and to not feel guilty if their attention wanes from one to another. All the characters in this scene are a little grander than they would be in realism, even Marlene, which works well to suggest that this is a playful figment of a well-educated and self-important woman’s imagination. Mauralea Austin plays Isabella Bird, with a lovely austere sense of Scottish propriety, but also a sense of the daring, adventurous spirit that took her around the world, but always with the Victorian haughtiness that, I’m sure, was what allowed her the freedoms she was afforded in her lifetime. Mary-Colin Chisholm plays Patient Griselda, a character from Plutarch and Chaucer, whose faithfulness and loyalty was tested three times by her cruel husband. Chisholm is docile with a naive, but firm, sense of duty, and she speaks enunciating every syllable of her words which gives her a strange illiteracy which is somehow faerie-like. Vanessa Walton-Bone is formidable and charming as Pope Joan, eager to interrupt, but always in a congenial way and who spews off in Latin as though talking about the football game, drunk and eating potato chips at the pub. Leana Todd, as Dull Gret, depicted in a painting for leading an invasion into Hell, is hilarious and often steals the scene with her gruff physicality and expressive wordless judgements and reactions to what the others say. Rebecca Parent’s struggles to make Lady Nijo about more than just her Japanese accent and to raise her above being depicted as a whiney child in order to be able to contend with the rest of the company.
Parent shines most magnificently, however, as Win, one of the young agents in Marlene’s office, who you get the feeling could hold her own with the cast of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. There is a great scene between Parent and Vanessa Walton-Bone, as Louise, a woman looking for a fresh career start at forty-six, which packs a powerful and humorous punch.
It is interesting that the challenge in this production is with the children, just as they can present a challenge for feminist ideologies and academia and they certainly provide challenges for the characters within the play. Leana Todd plays Angie, Marlene’s niece, who is sixteen years old, but developmentally delayed. Todd is quite vigorous with Angie in the last scene of the play, a little wild and exuberant with her emotions and this is echoed nicely in an earlier scene when Angie visits Marlene unexpectedly at her office. What becomes incongruous is Angie’s first scene, with her friend Kit, played by Stephanie MacDonald, mostly because Kit is not a real person, but instead a cartoonish “pesky brat” character reminiscent of Margaret from Dennis the Menace. It’s impossible to tell how old Kit is (she is supposed to be twelve but for some reason acts closer to seven), which makes it difficult to discern Angie’s age and Angie’s fragile mental state and her disturbing hatred and anger towards her mother gets lost in Kit’s empty high pitched voice and vapid sense of the gravity of the words that are coming out of both their mouths. Kit and Angie represent the children without strong maternal figures, echoing the lost and abandoned children spoken about by the Top Girls at the beginning of the play. Not unlike “want” and “ignorance” from Dickens, Angie and Kit have the power in this scene to paint an unsettling picture for the future for young girls under Thatcherism, but here, MacDonald especially, hasn’t fleshed out all the idiosyncrasies of Kit the Unique and Individual person enough for the scene to reach its potential to terrify.
Director Sherry Smith makes great use of the small North Street Church space. She is not afraid of keeping the women stagnant; knowing that their powerful performances are often more than enough to hold the audience captive, but she also knows when allowing a character to break from the group and take a walk focuses the attention and gives status and significance to certain vital moments. Smith lets these women unfold in a way that never seems contrived or convoluted and balances the severity of Churchill’s issues with a great amount of humour and fun.
Overall, there is a lot to love and marvel over in this play from an impressive array of Nova Scotia theatre’s top girls.
Top Girls plays at the North Street Church in Halifax (5657 North Street) until May 8th (8pm evenings, 2pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday). For tickets or more information please call 902.864-2126 or go online to www.lunaseatheatre.ca. Also, Mother’s Day is Sunday, May 8th, bring your Top Mom and get $5.00 off the ticket price!!