30 years after directing its premiere production, Max Stafford-Clark returns to Caryl Churchill's Top Girls. Thatcherite businesswoman Marlene (Suranne Jones) has just been made MD of Top Girls employment agency. In Act I she celebrates by going to a restaurant with a group of notable women from history and fiction, including Pope Joan, a Victorian explorer, and the much-wronged heroine of a medieval epic. In Act II we see Marlene at work, where she is visited by her niece (Olivia Poulet,) in reality the daughter she had at the age of 17 and who her infertile sister Joyce (Stella Gonet) has raised as her own. In Act III we go back a year to Joyce's kitchen and the previous time Marlene saw her secret daughter, and see the kind of woman who will eventually, casually, dismiss her child as a lost cause.
In looking at the sacrifices women have to make to succeed, the play questions whether some betray their identity as women. Written very early in Thatcher's decade in power, Churchill proves to have had the measure of her from the start and is very scathing - as Joyce says, having the first woman Prime Minister means nothing if it's that woman. Top Girls has a top cast and they serve it well but where sometimes I find Churchill's experimenting with non-linear storytelling and the bizarre illuminating, here I found it rather alienating; not helped by the fact that, to allow a fairly solid set and the resulting major scene changes on a relatively lo-tech stage, Stafford-Clark plays it with two intervals. With a total running time of 2hrs 20, that works out at 30 minutes of interval for 110 minutes of play, never quite letting you sink into the play's world for long.
Top Girls by Caryl Churchill is booking until the 29th of October at Trafalgar Studio 1.