There is something particularly well-timed about this current revival of Top Girls, a transfer from Chichester. A play that first detonated in the heart of Thatcher’s Britain, establishing playwright Caryl Churchill as one of the strongest voices of her generation, it seems oddly fitting that it should make its reappearance now, only a week after a Tory-ruled country has again descended into riots, betraying a state that is as riven by economic inequality and political faction as it ever was under the rule of the Iron Lady.
And indeed the opening segment seems as fresh and timeless as it ever did, even introduced as it is by a blast of 80s music; at a celebratory dinner party attended by iconic female characters from history, the only thing that has dated is career woman Marlene’s magnificently Dynasty-style outfit.
Handled with confidence and aplomb by the play’s original director, Max Stafford-Clark, this part of the show is a theatrical marvel. Set against designer Tim Shortall’s stylish and evocative backdrop, it showcases perfectly Churchill’s talent for writing precise, witty dialogue that manages to be both convincingly naturalistic and beautifully stylised at the same time, and never pauses for breath or puts a foot wrong. The women talk over one another, in rapid fire dialogues that not just overlap but are often completely overlain, yet neither the audience nor the characters ever lose track of what is being said at the opposite ends of the table. It is a scene that is at once strikingly original yet instantly familiar – no one who has ever attended an all-female celebration will fail to recognise it. The performances here are all outstanding, each actor perfectly capturing a moment in time as the women recount their shocking tales, although the standout has to be Lucy Briers’s wonderfully deadpan Pope Joan. The only slightly jarring note in an otherwise flawless segment is Catherine McCormack’s Lady Nijo: while her performance cannot be faulted, sensibilities have moved on, and it no longer feels quite so acceptable to have a white woman pancaked up as a Geisha, giving the role the unpleasant taint of a Minstrel show.
After the bravura linguistic pyrotechnics of this opener, almost inevitably the rest of the show seems rather flat. The middle segment, in particular, with its focus on office life, feels as dated as the 80s bouffants, although the strong performances keep it buoyant (Laura Elphinstone is a particular delight). But ultimately, it is like watching a clip from the movie Working Girl; all very pleasant, but so completely of its time as to be almost quaint.
The final act, back on the more eternal subject of family tensions, fares better, bolstered by two excellent performances: Stella Gonet’s earthy and frustrated Joyce and Suranne Jones’ prodigal sister Marlene, a true child of Thatcher, proud of the distance she has put between herself and her roots and annoyed that, returning to them, she finds herself pulled into familiar arguments. However here, too, the play shows its age, with its black and white division between the faithful who stay and suffer and the betrayers who leave and prosper, shaking off ties of family and community as they ‘get on their bikes’ and remake themselves in the brave new capitalist world. Although perhaps it only seems that way now because Thatcher changed our country so completely that we cannot help but have assimilated the ideas of her reign, so that what may have been radical then seems merely obvious now. Perhaps it is for that very reason that Top Girls remains important, a timely reminder of an era that both sowed the seeds for and bitterly reflects our own.