Power Redressing

A new revival of Top Girls shows that Caryl Churchill’s Thatcherite satire retains its dramatic vigour

Theatre
Frascati fashionista: Suranne Jones as Marlene in Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls"

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls was one of those dramas, like David Hare’s Pravda, that defined the 1980s. Now, with a Tory prime minister back in power, urban riots and a recession to get us in the mood for political  retro-drama, Churchill’s playful but pointed tale of feminist aspiration returns to the Trafalgar Studios in London. If, like your critic, you aspired to be big in the Eighties — or maybe you already were — this is the night out for you. 

Max Stafford-Clark has shown unswerving loyalty to the play — he gave it its premiere at the Royal Court in 1982 and revived it in 1991. In this production in the adeptly restored Trafalgar, he has breathed life into the drama of female ambition in a way that defies the decades, while acknowledging the passage of time by hamming up the costume-drama elements. 

Behind the obvious political edge of the play lies Churchill’s pulsing fascination with the liberating drive of Thatcher’s Eighties. Marlene (Suranne Jones), a Thatcher prototype with a strong head for Frascati (did we really drink that?), is celebrating her promotion to the top job at the Top Girls employment agency with a dinner party of history’s forgotten top girls: a brilliantly absurdist scene which succeeds because of Churchill’s absolute confidence in her writing and her ability to make us suspend disbelief from the rafters. 

The guests on this big night out include the doughty Victorian explorer Isabella Bird, the 13th-century courtesan of a Japanese emperor (Catherine McCormack) and Pope Joan (Lucy Briers), who may or may not have held the papacy disguised as a man in the 9th century. Joan describes being stoned to death after giving birth in the midst of a papal procession: “They didn’t go down that street again.” In the female misery stakes, even she is outbid by Lady Nijo, a feudal Japanese concubine haunted by the callous confiscation of her illegitimate children: “Even if it is just a girl you miss them.” Add a twist of thumping (literally) comic zeal from a burping, swearing Viking warrior and you’ve got one of the most memorable opening scenes in modern drama. 

It’s played fast and furiously, with the actors often speaking over each other: just a bit too much gabbling energy lost a lot of priceless lines and cross-century mal-entendu.

Back from her fantasy dinner party, Marlene veers between attractively go-getting and glancingly callous. The trade-off between personal advancement and morality is at the core of Churchill’s dramatic tension, but it’s rescued from prissiness by the acid wit of the career women, meditating on how they’ve made it. “Ah’m very friendly, like,” muses her ambitious Geordie co-worker, “ah’m just not very nice.” 

Disaster looms with Marlene’s belated duty visit to the shabby rural home of her grim-faced, irksomely defeatist sister Joyce (Stella Gonet), struggling with a dim teenage daughter Angie (Olivia Poulet). It’s a mounting disaster of social unease and doomed attempts to cross the burning bridge of differing experience, dispositions and ideology.

The final slanging match between Marlene and Joyce is, as a good row on stage should be, riveting and draining to watch. Angie follows her beloved Marlene to London and aspires to follow her into the world of swivel chairs and glass-topped office tables. “She won’t make it,” snaps Marlene, a line all the more shocking because we know it is as true of the Angies of today as it was of the era of stilettos and Frascati lunches.

Blow wind, lash ye rains and bring on the moody magician with the daughter-fixation: The Tempest is squalling away in a new production at the Haymarket Theatre. It’s a play that suffers from an architectural flaw of a lot of tale-telling longueur in the first half, leaving the real magic and pathos for the second.

Sir Trevor Nunn has clearly decided that he might as well throw everything at it to combat the wordiness. I do mean everything. His production is chock-full of camp flounces and flourishes with the son et lumière techniques of the commercial West End stage tacked on. Ariel (Tom Byam Shaw) looks like a fey, bleach-blond Billy Idol with a homo-erotic crush on his master. The female spirits with pointy hair and conical bras bear an unhappy resemblance to creatures from 1970s sci-fi movies, while the various knaves and tricksters goof around in doublet and hose.

It is as if several different productions had mated and produced a very mongrel offspring. Hardly anyone can sing well, which is a bit of a shortcoming in a play in which music features strongly and is belted out at a volume little short of the great deafener, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Fortunately, Ralph Fiennes as a brow-furrowed, brooding Prospero compensates. His relationship with Caliban is shot through with guilt, tenderness and remorse. In the role of the poor fettered creature, Giles Terera contorts and writhes his frustrations with raw physicality. That, however, makes us wonder why he then submits so readily to Prospero again in a rather sugary ending in which more than a few liberties are taken with the text to ensure that all’s well that ends well. Really The Tempest is a much more ambiguous play than that and the sugary glaze can’t conceal that the overall concept is muddy.

For laughs, we have Nicholas Lyndhurst, one of the few TV comedy stars who can translate his hang-dog gormlessness ably to the stage. He gets a Ronnie Wood haircut, for reasons best known to Sir Trevor, but paints a fine picture of clumsy self-d

elusion as Trinculo, wearing Prospero’s golden clothes like a schoolboy oaf who has stolen the neighbour’s washing. 

There are far too many flaws and inconsistencies to make this a Tempest to remember, but due credit to Fiennes, who saves the day. Without him, it wouldn’t be much more than a squall.