Melbourne Theatre Company – Top girls Carol Churchill

At the peak of her career, Margaret Thatcher gave tens of thousands of women the opportunity to believe they could overcome the female stereotypes of slave, housewife, cook, cleaner and mother.  Although not without a struggle and with popular opinion radically against her, Thatcher fought the odds of tradition and bias and proved a woman can do the job. In Carol Churchill’s feminist stronghold Top Girls, Thatcher’s tenacity and persistence reins, perfectly illustrating the difficulties of women in roles of power in a timeless way.

Marlene (played by Anita Hegh) is celebrating a huge promotion in her career after years of hard and sacrificing work. In 1980’s England, Marlene knows of the complexities that will be associated with her new role competing in a male dominated world. Content with her life, Marlene feels ready to take on her new role knowing how much she has put aside to get to where she is today. Unbeknownst to her however, she must tackle the ingrained decisions of her past whilst consulting female figures of history through a dream sequence, in an attempt to justify her ownership of her job.

Churchill questions the role of women and capitalist corporate culture throughout history as the characters reflect on their grief and loss at the hand of men thought their lives despite their successes. Directed by Jenny Kemp, each character is moulded between their role in the dream sequence and in Marlene’s real world depicting the parallels of each role as they discuss the battles of fighting for freedom of equality and the frightening reality of their powerlessness. The characters are strong and although present with a spectrum of personalities and periods throughout history, have all suffered for being female.

Sarah Ogden’s tedious Gret is uproariously monosyllabic, Joan of Arc figure from medieval times that compliments Li-Leng Au’s ancient Japanese concubine, Lady Nigo who misses her former life of luxury despite the Emperors mistreatment of her. Maria Theodorakis plays a conservative Pope Joan who reveals having given birth during a papal procession and spending her life pretending to be a man until she is stoned to death by the church.  Victorian traveller Isabella Bird played by Margaret Mills discusses her life as an adventurer travelling the world but regrets never settling down into a ‘Ladies’ role. Stuck in the middle is Patient Griselda played by Nikki Shiels who enters briefly to illustrate the effects of having her children taken from her by her husband in order to test her obedience to him.

The second half of the play is more poignant and creates clarity to Marlene’s situation though her working class upbringing and difficult relationship with her sister Joyce played also by Maria Theodorakis. We meet Marlene’s daughter Angie (Eryn Jean Norvill) who is being raised by her sister. Abrasive and a class above, Marlene challenges her sister and her choices in life claiming she is resentful of Marlene’s ability to ‘get out’. The two women show both sides of Thatcher’s England as Joyce portrays the role of cleaner, stuck in her childhood home, a mother to her sisters unwanted child who has a scant chance of a better life; the complete opposite to the somewhat selfish yet motivated Marlene.

Top girls transcends through time proving to be more than relevant to not only Thatcher’s England alone but spanning from as early as Pope Joan’s plight in the 9th century right through to the lives of the women in the audience today. If anything, the script rather than the cast let the play down albeit a minor setback. Beautifully directed by Kemp, the challenging production maintains the simplicity of stage and costume design allowing the very focus of the play remain on the hard pressing issues of ‘the 80’s power woman’ having it all and the struggle of gender equality.