The boldest statement made by director Max Stafford-Clark in his immaculate revival of Caryl Churchill’s hallucinogenic social satire is not to monkey about with it.
‘Top Girls’ premiered in 1982 at the Royal Court under Stafford-Clark’s direction. It remains British theatre’s most potent and original broadside against Thatcherism. But it would have been easy to tune down the ’80s. True, Finn Ross’s eerily pretty projected backdrops offer a sense of dislocation, but the haircuts, power shoulders and incongruously jaunty period soundtrack leave us in no doubt of the time or place.
Churchill’s play dreamily details the rise and rise of businesswoman Marlene (a superb Suranne Jones). Inevitably, the direct parallels between Marlene and Maggie resonate less strongly in 2011. But in questioning whether feminism and capitalism can ever be squared, Churchill unerringly predicted the ‘culture of me’ that has come to define our present. Instead of coming over as ’80s kitsch, Out of Joint’s production suggests that ‘Top Girls’ pinpoints the exact moment success overtook compassion as the cardinal social virtue.
The first scene remains simple, cryptic, sad and hilarious. In a chic restaurant, newly appointed employment agency MD Marlene sits down to nouvelle cuisine with five formidable women from history and fiction: Pope Joan, Patient Griselda, Isabella Bird, Lady Nijo and Dull Gret.
Stafford-Clark directs with an almost kitchen-sink naturalism, as these women, culturally poles apart, attempt chit chat. It is very funny: Pope Joan gets smashed; Dull Gret shoves the bread basket into her loot sack. Yet there is a dawning realisation that each one has compromised herself terribly for her success. And why is suave, airy Marlene here? Is Churchill foreshadowing her fate? Or damning the shallowness of her ambition?
Later scenes delve into Marlene’s past and present: icily staring down the wife of a male rival; reluctantly interacting with her niece, sister and half-forgotten rural past; calmly hanging on to a horrible secret. In a strong all-female cast, Jones stands out, coldly charismatic but impossible to hate as a woman who has put aside much that makes her human for the sake of success. Can we blame her? Should a feminist shy away from power? Should any of us? Churchill and Stafford-Clark offer no answer – just a terrible warning.