Review: Top Girls at Liverpool Everyman ***1/2
When Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls was premiered back in 1982, it was hailed as an important addition to both the socialist and feminist theatrical canon.
An excoriating examination of class, inequality and female empowerment, it posed questions about what it meant to be a successful woman in a patriarchal world – and the price of that success, as well as shining a spotlight on the clash of ideologies inherent between collective socialism and the individualism at the heart of Margaret Thatcher’s capitalist Britain.
Four decades on (and 20 years since it was last staged at the Everyman), how does it stand up and does it still have something relevant to say? Does it feel like a period piece or still keenly topical? Or can it, perhaps quixotically, be both in some measure at the same time?
While style-wise Ellie Light’s design carbon dates the story with shoulder pads, sharp lines and neon colours, Frascati on the table and Dallas on the rickety telly, here in 2023 it certainly feels like there’s a ‘plus ca change’ when it comes to women’s fight for equality (and equity), and – something that would seem inexplicable 40 years ago – to even maintain the historic gains they have made.
Meanwhile Churchill’s picture of wider societal inequality is still sadly pertinent too.
The play’s complex, non-linear structure and jumble of fantasy and reality make it both a challenging and at times exhilarating watch.
Its famous opening scene, one of those favourite Sunday supplement ‘dream dinner party’ questions made corporeal, sees power dressing career woman Marlene (Tala Gouveia) hosting a round table of women from history (Pope Joan, Japanese courtesan Lady Nijo, Victorian adventurer Isabella Bird), literature (Chaucer’s Patient Griselda) and painting (Breughel’s Dutch warrior woman Little Gret) to celebrate her successful promotion, over a male colleague, to senior exec of the Top Girls recruitment agency.
Above: Nadia Anim as Lady Nijo. Top: Tala Gouveia as Marlene. Photos by Marc Brenner
Here on the Everyman’s thrust stage the air fair fizzes with energy as the production’s tight-knit, ebullient ensemble cast meet, greet, boast, weep, snipe, talk over each other in Churchill’s cacophonic overlapping dialogue, and find a silent companionship in telling their individual stories of how they fared in a man’s world.
Among them is Elizabeth Twells, stepping in for another cast member at the eleventh hour and despite being on book, delivering a delightfully animated and wholly engaging performance as the feisty Bird. As it were.
As the fantasy melts away in a distorted, percussive burst of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, reality bites in the form of the Top Girls agency where Marlene and her go-getting female co-workers ape stereotypically macho attitudes, albeit with the spectre of self-doubt simmering just beneath the surface.
While the dinner party offers chaotic morsels to chew on and digest, it’s the scenes further on in the play which give the most food for thought, not least the succession of female interviewees who pop up from under the stage to be dismissively judged - on their dress, looks and age – by the agency women. No room for ‘sisterhood’ there.
Above: Alicya Eyo as Joyce and Tala Gouveia as Marlene. Photo by Marc Brenner
Later – as Churchill turns her attention from equality of the sexes to social mobility – Marlene judges both her weary, toughened-by-adversity sister Joyce (a quietly effective performance by Alicya Eyo) and her kinetic teenage ‘niece’ Angie (Saffron Dey) on their lack of drive and ambition.
“Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes,” she says, ignoring that what it took for her to succeed was others’ sacrifice.
There was a lot of fanfare ahead of the production about Churchill relocating some of the action from its original more rural Suffolk setting to the surroundings of a post-uprising Toxteth.
While it opens up conversation outside the bounds of the auditorium (and the Everyman team has pulled together an interesting programme of discussions and workshops to complement the run), inside I’m not sure it really adds all that much to the viewing experience; Marlene’s championing of Thatcherism may arguably seem more grating to those who imagine Liverpool speaks with one political voice, but the play itself doesn’t explore Marlene's role as a successful Black woman or indeed any of the wider ramifications of that specific time and place.
Gouveia delivers a nicely rounded central performance as Marlene, while there are some memorably sparky vignettes from YEP alumnus Nadia Anim as Lady Nijo and Lauren Lane as Pope Joan.
And while it doesn’t always feel as moving and gut-punchingly powerful as perhaps it might, in 2023 this Top Girls still leaves you with plenty to ponder.