By Gillie Tunley and Brenda Sandilands.
Progress Theatre are staging the exuberant Top Girls by acclaimed author Caryl Churchill this week. It is directed with passionate verve by Rebecca Moir and explores the timeless theme of female empowerment.
We are welcomed into the surreal opening sequence in which the successful business woman Marlene (played with extraordinary panache and poignancy by Megan Turnell) entertains high-flying females from the past. These include the ninth century transvestite Pope Joan (played by the hilariously fabulous, Latin-spouting Liz Carroll) the intrepid Victorian explorer Isabella Bird (a deliciously feisty portrayal by Mel Sherwood), the monosyllabic Dull Grett, Harrower of Hell (a powerful kick-ass performance by Sandra Matthew, in ‘attitude’ bother boots), Lady Nijo the Japanese mistress of an emperor (daintily played by Heather Eley) and the long-suffering Griselda, the patient wife from Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale (a solidly stoic portrayal by Anya Valenova).
This curiously assorted bunch behave badly like a gang of girls out on the razz as they become increasingly inebriated. Their intense, overlapping dialogue reveals how they have suffered in similar ways, mirroring characters in the modern-day story.
An insistent 80s disco beat (a super soundscape by Jon Churchill) propels us forward to the present day (1980s) to the Top Girls Agency, pink neon lit. But it is a surprisingly masculine environment, where the female staff have a ruthlessly competitive work ethic – none more than the newly promoted Marlene, who has escaped a background of poverty and, we learn, much more…
We catch a glimpse of her humble origins – her homely sister Joyce, in her beige cardi (a movingly profound portrayal by Chris Moran), her troubled ‘niece’ Angie (played with touching simplicity by Poppy Price) whose only friend is the much younger Kit (the delightfully endearing Juliet Moir). Angie despises her mother and longs to escape the loveless life they have together. She idolises her auntie Marlene, yet their exchanges are stilted and awkward.
In an electrically charged final scene between the two sisters, an extraordinary secret is revealed… there is no going back, the rift between them is irreparable and the dynamic altered for ever…
This is a richly complex play, both heartfelt and funny, blazing a bright beacon for female aspiration. Don’t miss it!