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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 26th January 2002

Top Girls / The Alchemist

The Spectator - 26th January 2002

Top Girls, Caryl Churchill's play about the problems faced by women throughout the ages, is generally regarded as a feminist classic. ("One of the top 10 plays of the 20th Century"--The Guardian.) Written in 1982 at the height of the Thatcher era, it documents the struggle of various different women, including several historical characters, to wrestle with the age-old problem of being born female in a man's world. I was particularly looking forward to seeing this production at the Aldwych because the director, Thea Sharrock, won the James Menzies-Kitchin Award for best young director last year. It promised to be an evening of sheer delight.

The first inkling that this revival isn't all it's cracked up to be comes as soon as the curtain goes up. There, in the centre of the stage, is a kind of giant eye made out of what appears to be concrete. What on earth is it supposed to be? More importantly, what's it doing there? The Guardian critic described it as "an elliptical chunk of moonlit rock", but to my eyes it looked more like one of those modern sculptures that Prince Charles would like to blow up with a stick of dynamite.

The brutality of the set is indicative of a general contempt for the audience that becomes all too apparent as soon as the first act gets underway. It consists of a dinner party to which various historical characters have been invited--some real, some imagined. The clash between--among others--Pope Joan, a 9th century figure who disguised herself as a man and became the first woman to sit on the throne of St Peter, and Isabella Bird, a 19th century explorer, could have been quite entertaining, but it's impossible to make out what they're saying because of the overlapping dialogue. The general sense you have is of a gaggle of women, all talking at once, which does little to advance Caryl Churchill's feminist agenda. On the contrary, it left me thinking how wise it is that most gentleman's clubs still refuse to admit women as members, however distinguished their careers.

The play improves significantly in the second act in which we leave the likes of Pope Joan and Isabella Bird behind and concentrate on the present--or, rather, 1982. The majority of the action takes place at an employment agency called "Top Girls" and the same actresses who play the historical characters reappear as their latter-day equivalents. For instance, the actress who plays Pope Joan, Joanna Scanlon, crops up as a career woman who's made it to the top of her profession by behaving like a man. The only character who remains unchanged is Marlene, the host of the dinner party. She runs the employment agency.

Intellectually, Top Girls offers much to chew on. The success of all the women in the play, both real and imaginary, has come at a heavy price. For instance, we discover that Marlene has abandoned her slightly backward daughter, as well as her elderly mother, to be cared for by her more compassionate but less successful sister. The point Churchill seems to be making is that it's impossible for women to really thrive, to become fully actualised beings, without neglecting their family responsibilities. This is the dilemma that all ambitious women face: am I willing to sacrifice the nurturing aspects of my nature to beat men at their own game?

Formally, too, Top Girls is admirably ambitious. In act three, we're teleported back to the immediate past for an epic confrontation between Marlene and Joyce, her long-suffering sister. This is the most powerful scene in the play, not least because Helen Anderson as Joyce manages to convey the mixed feelings she has about Marlene so vividly. At the end of the evening I was left with the impression that, in better hands, Top Girls could have been a really thrilling play to sit through. For that reason, I'd say this revival is probably best avoided.

The Alchemist at the Riverside Studios is beset by the opposite problem: the production by the Jerwood Space is extremely good but the material is so weak it barely manages to hold your attention. I'm ashamed to say I've never seen anything by Ben Johnson before but, on the strength of this play, perhaps I'm not missing much. The brilliant central performances by Arthur Caulfield and Don Gilet can't disguise the fact that the story itself is woefully thin. It's like watching a feeble BBC sitcom set in the 17th Century. After two-and-a-half hours, I longed to go home and watch an episode of Black Adder.

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