Crash Course Theatre: Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill

Uh1SU9Yv_400x400Those of you who’ve read my previous pieces on Crash Course Theatre will know that they are a Glasgow based Theatre company focusing on collaborative creation of plays and that their previous play, Closer, was a resounding success. This time, they have taken on Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, a famously feminist work about the career-driven Marlene and her relationships with the people in her life. The play is most famous for its opening scene, featuring the main character attending a dinner party, accompanied by several women from history and folklore. First performed in 1982 (and set as such, for Thatcher is mentioned throughout), the play manages to still strike a chord today, in a world where women are still suffering due to their gender.

The opening scene portrays the aforementioned dinner, where Marlene is joined by Isabella Bird (nineteenth-century English explorer, writer, photographer, and naturalist), Lady Nijo (a thirteenth-century Japanese concubine), Dull Gret (subject of the painting “Dulle Griet” by Pieter Breughel), Patient Griselda (a character from Chaucer’s Canterbury tales) and Pope Joan (a woman who supposedly reigned as pope during the middle ages, according to a common folk tale). Each serves to underline the views on women in society, the most notable being Nijo, whose conditioning by her culture to feel honoured about her encounters with the Emperor of Japan (an encounter the rest of the table regards as rape). The rest look at stories of their lives and reflect on how their gender affected them. An interesting scene, as though these characters span the centuries, their stories are depressingly relatable.

The following scene introduces Marlene’s “Niece” Angie, an immature 16-year-old and Joyce, Marlene’s sister Joyce, very much the opposite of Marlene herself. The dichotomy between the two is expanded upon in the final scene, however all that is revealed her is that Joyce doesn’t get along with her daughter, who idolizes her successful aunt. Angie takes a bus to London to visit her Aunt’s management agency, in which she has just been promoted. Here we get a glimpse of the realities of being a woman at work in the 80’s. The workers in the office seem as jaded as Marlene, who we learn has just been promoted to Manager, over a man no less. This is treated with reverence by many of the workers, as it is not something you see every day. Angie’s sudden appearance is not entirely welcome to Marlene, who offers to put her up for the night, but is visibly uncomfortable with her hanging around the office. This is exacerbated by the arrival of the wife of the worker Marlene was promoted over, who proceeds to try and convince Marlene to let her husband have the job, questioning whether it’s right for Marlene to do a “man’s job”. Sadly, again, these ideas, though portrayed in the medium of the 80’s are an all too familiar occurrence.

All things are brought into sharp focus in the final scene, set one year prior, during a visit to Joyce and Angie by Marlene. Here, we truly see how the two sisters interact. We learn that Angie is Marlene’s daughter, not Joyce’s, but that Joyce offered to look after her when Marlene didn’t want a child (believing, perhaps correctly, that it would kill her career prospects. Again, a painfully familiar idea). It all comes to head, after several arguments, when the subject turns to politics and Marlene reveals she voted for Thatcher, to her sister’s horror and outrage. Never, before now, had I truly appreciated the phrase “a woman but not a sister”. Marlene the tough professional is portrayed as soulless, suppressing her own caring side in the cause of success. The play argues against the style of feminism that simply turns women into new patriarchs and argues for a feminism where women’s instinct to care for the weak and downtrodden is more prominent. The play questions whether it is possible for women in society to combine a successful career with a thriving family life. Marlene has one, Joyce has (some semblance of) the other, but neither seems truly content. Overall, the acting in all scenes, but especially this, was beyond anything one might expect from a student run production and makes us ask some very real questions about the way we live our lives.

-Michael Cartledge

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 16.32.26

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