Theatre Review: Top Girls, West Yorkshire Playhouse

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Ah, the good old days of the 1980s, when everyone knew where they stood: Feminists, Commies and multiculturalists to the left, homophobes, misogynists and nationalists to the right.

Top Girls takes us back – and with one clear message: women have, over the centuries, always been handed the wrong end of the stick by various misogynistic societies – and the dismissal of “society” under a female prime minister didn’t do anything to further the cause of women either.

The case in hand is Marlene, a career-driven Thatcherite who, in the first act, we see dining with various female figures from throughout history. In some way each has been a victim.

By the second and third act we discover that Marlene isn’t much different. Despite being forged in an an apparently fairer age for the fairer sex, she’s hiding her own heartache.

Caryl Churchill’s distinctive piece of theatre has been canonised as a landmark creation, an echo from a time when the dividing lines were supposed to be getting removed, not merely blurred and repositioned.

Director Max Stafford-Clark would have us believe that Top Girls holds great resonance due to today’s society bearing such a strong resemblance to that of 30 years ago.

But comparing the two eras is like comparing mobile phones from the 1980s and now: they may bear some resemblance, but they could hardly be more different either.

Which is why watching this production is like watching a period drama. Its radical elements, like some great glass and steel building erected in the Thatcher years, must have seemed contemporary at the time, but now they look seriously dated.

The drastically overlapped dialogue is irritating and indulgent, the cliched characterisation of ball-breaking, power-hungry women in shoulder pads is lazy, and the underlying political message clumsy.

At the same time, the performances are strong and the sometimes random action is curiously captivating, which owes much to Churchill’s great writing.

Top Girls is worth viewing if only to see how people – left and right – once viewed the world. But it’s not evidence of history repeating itself, it’s a reminder of how much change there’s been in society – and in theatre.

To March 10, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill, Leeds, 7.45pm, £17 to £27. Tel: 0113 213 7700.

Rod McPhee

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