Top Girls, Aldwych Theatre, London

Two decades on, Marlene makes you feel success is still man-shaped
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The Independent Culture

Since Caryl Churchill's Top Girls was premièred in 1982, we have had been through everything from Blair's Babes to Susan Faludi's Backlash. But it would take uncommon stupidity to suppose that this prescient study of right-wing feminism has dwindled, as a consequence, to the neutered status of a period piece.

Thea Sharrock's bitingly lucid and hugely entertaining Oxford Stage Company revival, now at the Aldwych, proves it has been no more superannuated by events than Ibsen's A Doll's House.

Like all good art, Top Girls does not trade in convenient (or even inconvenient) answers. Instead, it has the guts to pose the really difficult questions. The play opens with what many people (not me, though) reckon is its pièce de résistance. Marlene, the central figure, has just been promoted to managing director of the eponymous employment agency. To celebrate this, she is joined in a swanky London restaurant by female figures from history and art, ranging from the legendary Pope Joan to patient Griselda, whose tale of devoted obedience appals the other drunken revellers.

Sharrock directs this long sequence with a terrific buoyancy, cleverly staging it round a slowly revolving table. It's an undeniable tour de force but the scene seems to me to be vulnerable to the objection that the go-getting Marlenes of this world have no knowledge of, still less respect for, history and tradition. She'd be more likely to invite a gang of fanciable men than this apostolic sorority. I also can't help feeling that it must have been easier to write than the utterly masterly final episode where Marlene pays an all-too-rare visit to the working-class sister on whom she dumped the baby who would have impeded her progress.

The actresses (Hattie Ladbury perfect as the hard-faced yet not insensitive Marlene; Helen Anderson also superb as the depressed and defeatist sister) bring such truth and brilliant timing to the scene that it is a joy to watch – the intimacy and recrimination, the bile and the blood that is thicker than water inextricably intertwined. One of the bad things about Thatcher was that she often dragged art down to her own level. Some of the ripostes were as shrill and lacking in hinterland as she was. But Marlene is a fully rounded, occasionally likeable portrait of the kind of female who is out to advance the cause of one woman (herself) with little consideration for womankind in general.

It's a play that very honestly confronts the perks and the privations of this mentality. Sharrock's beautifully acted production (with Pascale Burgess heartbreaking as the emotionally famished, fan-worshipping daughter) makes you feel that "success" is still man-shaped and that Top Girls has the unflagging timeliness of a timeless masterpiece.