Max Stafford-Clark’s toothless Top Girls

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the ‘Haves’ and ‘Have Nots’, about aptitude, luck and opportunity. Questions of cultural legacy and the onus of the individual within society have been swirling round my head.

It is in this frame of mind that I went to see Top Girls, the Chichester revival currently at Trafalgar Studios. I’d just devoured Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers which looks at our ideas of success and the myths we have around successful individuals. It’s fair to say that I was excited to see Caryl Churchill’s repost against The Iron Lady. But in this heavily empathic production Max Stafford-Clark has missed the point about the relevance of Top Girls for today.

Churchill’s text is often quoted as a feminist classic. Looking at ideas of motherhood, sisterhood and the world of work, it asks ‘Do women have to follow the patriarchal rules of this society to succeed?’ Questions like these are still sadly relevant today (it’s remarkable that Top Girls is the only play on the West End with an entirely female cast – as pointed out by Fiona Mountford, herself a woman in a male dominated career). But I would argue that right now these questions are superseded by the  more universal, underlying  thrust of Churchill’s play; what happens to weaker individuals in a society that is so focussed on the idea of success? As we hurtle head-first into a world where social housing, school start-up programmes and the NHS are being ruthlessly cut, isn’t this the question that matters most?

Dished up neatly in three acts, the third is the most politically potent. The gloriously surreal first act (where Marlene hosts a dinner party for historical heroines such as Pope Joan) is everyone’s favourite. The second addresses women trying to be men in the workplace (probably the most redundant portion for 2011), but it is the third that should do the most damage. A brilliant piece of political polemic powered by the embittered relationship of two women, it centres around a showdown between Marlene, a pure child of Thatcher and her socialist sister, Joyce. At the centre of this antagonism is Angie, ostensibly Joyce’s daughter but actually Marlene’s. Just as Marlene is bellowing that anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough, the fact that she was only able to do so because Joyce picked up her tab hangs over her head. Churchill is waging war against the selfish drive of Conservative Britain in the 1980s, and it’s an argument that transfers powerfully to Conservative Britain today.

Yet in Stafford-Clark’s production, the sting of this parallel has been lost. The women in Top Girls are vehicles for a dialectical discussion. Of course, because Churchill is a strong writer, there are elements of psychological truth within all of them, but apart from Marlene none of these characters is developed throughout the play.  Top Girls has been constructed functionally as a means of discussing Churchill’s ideas of socialist feminism and the characters within it are there to serve that function. But by focussing instead on them as psychological individuals Stafford-Clark has ignored this functionality. In softening Marlene, he has diffused the power of the third act. The battle between socialism and individualism should be gut wrenching and thought provoking but here it just feels flat because as Isabella Bird’s Joyce rails, Suranne Jones’ soft focus Marlene simply defends.

With no qualifications or future prospects, Angie is the real victim in the brave new world that Marlene is so zealous about. At the end of the play, Angie’s final strangled cry of ‘Frightening!’ should be devastating. This is a girl completely failed by a society that her mother not only inhabits but, worse, promotes. Angie’s anguish is a provocation to a world where only the strong survive. In this production, an otherwise superb Olivia Poulet delivers the line like an after thought. By personalising Marlene’s journey Stafford-Clark has robbed this final impotent cry of its power just when we needed to hear it most.

For more information go here.

Review: Light Shining In Buckinghamshire

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In his book State Of The Nation: British Theatre since 1945, Michael Billington mentions a number of plays which, whilst seminal at the time, have not as he gracefully puts it ‘aged well’.

He posits Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play Light Shining In Buckinghamshire as one of the few exceptions to this rule; so why then is it so under produced? Perhaps to right this wrong The Arcola is housing Polly Findlay’s sturdy yet impassioned production that more than highlights the timelessness of Churchill’s text.

Set in Putney in 1647, Light Shining In Buckinghamshire takes a comprehensive look at the debates and tussles for power within the Puritan New Model Army. The ‘Grandees’ Oliver Cromwell and his right hand man Henry Ireton are at logger heads with the Agitators and Levellers, ordinary officers representing their regiments. 

The revelation that nothing is to change for the poor is being brought home with devastating force to the Agitators. Their liberal and (even in this day and age), forward thinking Agreement of the People is refused at every turn as the ‘Silken Independents’, worthily represented by Ireton, refuse to acquiesce to the idea that all men are equal, fearing that to do so would attack the very foundations of a landowner’s right to hold property.

  It is not only the political infighting and squabbling that rings so true in today’s coalition landscape, but also Cromwell’s betrayal of the ideologies he held whilst in opposition. This is something that any modern voter will painfully recognise.

Churchill avoids allowing the text to become nothing more than dry intellectual debate by tempering the theory with a rising amount of emotional and religious fervour. Whilst societal revolution is imploding, a religious revelation shines through as a hippy mania of free love and reclaiming sin grips the increasingly maligned Agitators.

Findlay brings out the desperation of the ordinary men and women at play here with a painfully acute flair and her staging fully encompasses the audience as members of these community meetings. 

Performed with a full-blooded zeal by a stellar cast, including Kobna Holdbrook Smith and Michelle Terry, at moments this production is truly hypnotic; Helen Lymbery’s final ecstatic seduction into religious escapism is an almost Bacchic conversion and one we all feel whipped up in. After all their effort, we are left watching people scrabbling for a saviour; soaked in the sombre realisation that these moments of revolutionary potential, whether they be in 1647, 1997 or 2010, invariably come to nothing.

Runs until 7th August.

Written for Whats On Stage

Theatre That Expects Something

In a world where relativism is absolute (the ultimate irony of which cannot be lost on anyone!) it is hard to make bold statements about anything without having your thoughts bashed into a bland liberal pc version of themselves.   This is not to say that I don’t want discussion, in fact discussion is essential, but in any debate there are sides: let’s just jump off the fence and place our feet firmly on one for a change. So, with that said, I am going to say in no uncertain terms that what I require from the theatre (and when I say the term ‘theatre’ I am encompassing all forms of performance art which is outwardly thinking also) is for it to expect, indeed demand, something from me.

Only a handful of the performances that I have seen over the past 4/5 months have asked something of me as a member of the audience.  These have come in a myriad of forms from experimental work such as Forced Entertainment’s Spectacular and Julia Lee Barclays’ Besides, you lose your soul or The History of Western Civilisation through to Caryl Churchill’s much debated piece Seven Jewish Children or the minimalist opera Doctor Atomic, now showing at the Coliseum.  The structures of these works are vastly different but each has required its audience to put in some footwork throughout the performance.  

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