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 But I would argue that right now these questions are superseded by the  more universal, underlying  thrust of Churchill’s play; what happens to weaker individuals in a society that is so focussed on the idea of success?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.

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