“Feminism is alive and well—”
“—the hell you say, it always has—”
“Of course, I would never dream of interrup--”
“As well, you should fucking—”
“—kill my mother.”
“—It was so much easier being a man in a—”
“Pass the potatoes!”
The fine—if occasionally frustratingly—art of overlap (be that dialogue, action, ideas or issues) was on fascinating display at the Shaw Festival première of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.
The avidly feminist playwright’s fantastically constructed probe into women’s concerns (written in 1982 and first performed that same year at London’s Royal Court Theatre) still manages to pack a punch in 2015—perhaps with the realization that, like racism, not all battles for equality have been won (and, given human nature, never will be).
But as interesting, frequently provoking as the writing is, it’s the company of seven women that lifts Vikki Anderson’s multi-paced production into the realm of must-experience.
Virtually every emotion known to mankind has its turn as the troupe brings to life 16 characters with zest, insight and care. That notion of preparing for the roles to come is aptly—if perhaps a bit overly long—depicted while the audience is initially sent backstage as makeup, hair and costumes are fussed with and set in place (boisterously accompanied by era-appropriate tracks) before the first line is delivered.
Those waiting for laughs are rewarded early on as the up-and-coming career woman, Marlene (Fiona Byrne in fine form as the hostess with the mostest) invites six of her timeless (quite literally, ranging from Claire Jullien as Pope Joan through Julia Course’s finely entitled—in many senses of the word—Lady Nigo) to a celebratory repast.
Absolutely hilarious during the wine-laden chow down is Laurie Paton’s take on Dull Gret—a long ago veteran of birthing 10 children and a personal stroll through Hell, whose pilfering of the silver and bellowing ejaculations (lifting off with a “Cock!” for the ages) perfectly belies reinvention as Mrs. Kidd—the long-suffering wife of the man passed over for promotion thanks to Marlene’s wily pushiness.
Tess Benger also displays impressive range whether being the chain-smoking waitress or wonderfully juvenile, Kit, while Catherine McGregor lights up the stage with a wonderful entrance playing Isabella Bird.
Yet the best writing and performing centres on the stark contrast between two sisters: the pursuit of victory over mere males from Marlene and the impoverished, child rearing Joyce (Tara Rosling in superb form). The rapid-fire exchanges emanating from the struggling-their-own-way women—including acid tongues, unwanted truths and a moment of real love—bring the play to a truly dramatic conclusion that anyone who has ever spit out or felt a sharp word will identify with—perhaps shuddering in the memory.
And as long as pent-up anger remains roiling deep inside the human psyche, the universality of Top Girls will hit home forever. JWR