by Caryl Churchill.
Trafalgar Studios (Studio 1) 14 Whitehall SW1A 2DY To 29 October 2011.
then tour 18 Jan-17 March 2012.
Runs 2hr 25min Two intervals.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 16 August.
New angle of revival suggests this play’s classic status.
While recognising the achievement of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play, Carole Woddis was muted in her response to original director Max Stafford-Clark’s new production when it opened in Chichester – particularly the staging of the famous first act, where Marlene celebrates promotion at Top Girls recruitment agency by throwing a dinner for women from history and fiction.
Balancing the famous overlapping dialogue must have been difficult in Chichester’s three-sided Minerva. The end-stage Trafalgar Studio One serves things better. Though the dinner seems quicker and messier than memories of 1982 suggest, the rowdiness of a female Bullingdon-type evening and the overlapping dialogue of assertive individuals fits a fiercer perspective, where society’s winners show arrogant disregard for those always there to stay silent and sweep-up; an attitude caught when Suranne Jones’ suavely confident Marlene snaps a command for coffee at the Waitress.
The eighties’ push forward for women came not so much because of the first female Prime Minister but because Thatcherism, just getting seriously underway, threw off all restraints in the pursuit of profit. And Thatcher’s female opponents, with their different vision of women’s advancement, would have held little attraction for Marlene, even if they’d been asked.
And (an interval perception from women on Row H) those successful diners suffered as they succeeded. Today the third act comes into particular focus, with Marlene’s claim the eighties will be “stupendous” set against both her unacknowledged daughter Angie’s repeated, unexplained “Frightening” at the close, and the anger of Joyce, the sister who stayed in East Anglian rural poverty, bringing up Marlene’s child.
Joyce’s refusal to surrender to Marlene’s politics, or retain personal amity despite them is the voice of hope from the defeated. As Carole said, Stella Gonet is outstanding: as Joyce, as Victorian traveller Isabella Bird, unable to stay at home with her sister, and the briefly-seen Mrs Kidd, wife of the man Marlene’s beaten as boss. In 1982, Mrs Kidd was the last generation to expect women to step-aside for men.
Maybe not a revival to wipe-out memories of Stafford-Clark’s first, Royal Court production, but one that sits well in this age.
Pope Joan/Louise: Lucy Briers.
Patient Griselda/Nell: Laura Elphinstone.
Isabella Bird/Joyce/Mrs Kidd: Stella Gonet.
Marlene: Suranne Jones.
Waitress/Kit/Shona: Lisa Kerr.
Lady Nijo/Win: Catherine McCormack.
Dull Gret/Angie/Jeanine: Olivia Poulet.
Director: Max Stafford-Clark.
Designer: Tim Shortall.
Lighting: Jason Taylor.
Sound: Ian Dickinson for Autograph.
Video: Finn Ross.
Dialect coach: Charmian Hoare.
Associate director: Tim Hoare.
Associate sound: Avgoustos Psillas for Autograph.