Top Girls, Minerva Theatre, Chichester

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The Independent Culture

Art is news that stays news, declared Ezra Pound – a verdict vibrantly endorsed by this thrilling new production of Caryl Churchill's 1982 play Top Girls.

It's directed with absolute mastery by Max Stafford-Clark, who mounted the world premiere and then staged a second production at the Royal Court in 1991. His dedication to the work pays rich dividends here in the elating skill with which he brings each of the play's discrepant and discontinuous modes to shockingly powerful life.

The piece begins with an outrageously funny and disturbing tour de force – a long, semi-absurdist scene in which Marlene (superb Suranne Jones), a young working-class-made-good "career woman" and Thatcherite individualist, celebrates her promotion to managing director of the Top Girls employment agency by hosting a dinner at a swanky London restaurant for female figures from history and art. These range from Pope Joan (portrayed with a lovely wit by Lucy Briers), who, in the 9th century, achieved the top job disguised as a man, only to be stoned to death when she went into labour during a papal procession, to Lady Nijo, a 13th-century Japanese concubine (portrayed by an hilarious Catherine McCormack) who wound up a wandering Buddhist nun.

Stafford-Clark's crack cast perform the scene with a wonderful mad verve, bringing out all the comedy of incongruity as the different cultural assumptions of the women thwack against each other at a social event more associated with parties of bullish bankers.

In the questions it raises about women and reproduction and success, this episode also sets up the situation, explored with agonising realism in later sections, whereby we learn that Marlene's progress has been bought at the expense of her illegitimate daughter (an emotionally famished Olivia Poulet) who has been brought up as the child of her resentful proletarian sister (excellent Stella Gonet). The climactic ding-dong between the sisters is gut-wrenchingly well played here – the recrimination and the muscle memory of intimacy, the bile and the blood that is thicker than water, the sense that Marlene's go-getting individualism depends upon exploiting other women set against the irritating defeatism of her sister. A classic play in a classic production.

To 16 July (01243 781312)