Top Girls | BAC, London

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The Independent Culture

The James Menzies-Kitchen award stumps up £6,000 each year to encourage young directors to restage classic plays, which is a bit like encouraging them to wear tweeds or smoke a pipe: perfectly respectable behaviour, but it won't get you laid at the school disco. It's an award that gives precedence to the literary approach to theatre, which may be why all three winners or runners-up showcasing work in BAC's current season are Oxbridge alumni - and therefore, you might think, less in need of shoves in the right direction than most.

The James Menzies-Kitchen award stumps up £6,000 each year to encourage young directors to restage classic plays, which is a bit like encouraging them to wear tweeds or smoke a pipe: perfectly respectable behaviour, but it won't get you laid at the school disco. It's an award that gives precedence to the literary approach to theatre, which may be why all three winners or runners-up showcasing work in BAC's current season are Oxbridge alumni - and therefore, you might think, less in need of shoves in the right direction than most.

Thea Sharrock is this year's award-winner, and her accomplished revival of Top Girls opens the season. Caryl Churchill's play pressed some zeitgeisty buttons when it opened in 1982, by delineating and deconstructing female success in history, in the boardroom, and at 10 Downing Street. Must female emancipation, asks Churchill, come at the expense of traditional femininity? It's a testament to Churchill's success, but a problem for Sharrock's production, that these arguments now seem very well rehearsed. Indeed, now that our own PM divides time between a high-powered job and bringing up baby, perhaps it's time for a more provocative reworking: Top Boys, anyone?

From the off, Sharrock is well served by strong performances by the eight-strong cast. Hattie Ladbury is Marlene, recently promoted boss of an employment agency, who's invited a selection of illustrious women from history to join her celebrations. Ladbury's Sloaney asides are the highlights of a sequence that sees her time-travelling dinner guests swig Frascati and swap life stories. We hear how the transvestite 9th-century Pope Joan (Sarah Grochala) was rumbled when she accidentally bore a sprog halfway along the procession from St Peter's to St Paul's. And how Patient Griselda (Katherine Tozer), of Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, sacrificed her children at her husband's whim. We'd hear more, but Churchill's characters drown each other in conflicting chatter.

The point, if Marlene's later behaviour is anything to go by, may be that women pay insufficient heed to one another's experiences. Churchill not only dramatises the distance Marlene has travelled from her antecedents; she draws parallels too. In a meandering second act, we see "ballbreaker" Marlene at work. In Act Three, she visits the daughter she abandoned to her sister, who still languishes in the life Marlene left behind. The sisters' arguments over Thatcherite politics are heavy-handed (I wonder if the line "I think the Eighties are going to be stupendous" was greeted with such a guffaw 20 years ago) but the performances are absorbing.

The sibling acrimony is palpable as Sophie Stanton's beleaguered but proud Joyce upbraids little sis for a lifetime's selfishness. Suddenly we're watching a recognisable relationship between characters who blossom beyond Churchill's didacticism. It's the peak of an efficient revival by Sharrock, who, judging by the list of luminaries she thanks in the programme and the professionalism of her staging, should go far, but who could - after the fashion of Pope Joan and friends - profitably inject a little individuality along the way.

To 6 Aug, 020-7223 2223

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