From women behaving badly to drama directed badly

Top Girls; All's Well that Ends Well | <i>Battersea Arts Centre, London</i>
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Love her or hate her, Margaret Thatcher sounded a starting pistol for women in the rat race. Caryl Churchill's Top Girls - billed as a play about women's changing role in society - might have cheered them on; but by 1982, when this bittersweet, breakneck comedy was first performed, the Iron Lady ethos was wearing thin. Success in the Eighties, Churchill suggests, belonged to women behaving badly; renouncing the family, acting tough, and playing at being men.

Love her or hate her, Margaret Thatcher sounded a starting pistol for women in the rat race. Caryl Churchill's Top Girls - billed as a play about women's changing role in society - might have cheered them on; but by 1982, when this bittersweet, breakneck comedy was first performed, the Iron Lady ethos was wearing thin. Success in the Eighties, Churchill suggests, belonged to women behaving badly; renouncing the family, acting tough, and playing at being men.

Top Girls' extraordinary first act finds evidence for this in the past. Hard-nosed Eighties yuppie Marlene (Hattie Ladbury) hosts a dinner party for five historical figures to celebrate their survival in a man's world. These women have all been undone by being female and redeemed by masculine virtues. Pope Joan makes it - disguised as a man - in ninth-century Europe, until she gives birth in the street. Dull Gret, painted by Brueghel, is brutalised as a soldier, while tweedy travelling Scot Isabella Bird is a fugitive from love and motherhood.

Thea Sharrock - this year's recipient of the James Menzies-Kitchin Young Director Award - gives her exceptional cast free reign with these characters' Babel chatter. There's no comfort or resolution for the women in this imagined sorority. The hysterical sing-song of the Japanese concubine is punctured by Gret's grunts, Marlene's wry asides and Isabella's tired reminiscences in a cacophony which articulates their common struggle - while preserving their individual voices from the swamp of a feminist diatribe. Sharrock's sure touch is better discerned in the following acts, which develop Marlene's story with meticulous attention to Eighties detail. Newly promoted, Marlene prepares to rule Top Girls recruitment agency (company credo: "I'm not very nice") with a rod of iron. Enter the runaway niece Angie (Pascale Burgess), whose dogged devotion to her ball-breaker aunt threatens Marlene's position.

The final act showcases the production's best performers, as Joyce (Sophie Stanton) rails against the life her sister Marlene has chosen. As the Iron Lady lets her hair down in the family home, she is sharply reminded of her role as a mother and sister. The conclusion - which leaves Marlene alone at the table, struggling with the same unhappy conflicts of the dinner party - makes the case for Top Girls' revival. Churchill's play, though rooted in the 1980s, now delivers an excellent history lesson.

All's Well that Ends Well is a nasty piece of work. Inverting the rituals of courtship and the family - the mainstays of the average Shakespearean comedy - it is peopled with lovers-turned-slaves, malicious clowns and ignoble noblemen. Acknowledging the play's sour face, Gemma Fripp's design for Straydogs' production has sweet-smelling herbs suspended from the ceiling - like Elizabethan pomanders disguising a bad smell.

Herbalist's daughter Helena cures the ailing French King, and is rewarded with the husband of her choice - her adopted brother Bertram. But he refuses to consummate the marriage until Helena has performed the impossible and become pregnant with his child.

As Helena, Rosanna Lowe wears a grimace of grief that quickly dries into a mask, while the verbal acrobatics of the clown, Parolles - All's Well's one redeeming feature - are thrown away by David Mitchell's expressionless delivery. While the cast of pierrots and costume dummies promised imaginative staging at first, precious little emerged to brighten this dull affair.

'Top Girls' and 'All's Well that Ends Well': BAC, SW11 (020 7223 2223) to 6 August

Comments