THEATRE: Top Girls – State Theatre Company of SA – Dunstan Playhouse – 3K

The later decades of the 20th century were a time of great change for women in terms of their place in the world and, more specifically, the workforce. By the 1980s it was becoming more common for women to pursue a career, rather than be satisfied with the roles of housewife and mother. Top Girls shows this time of transition through the eyes of Marlene (Ulli Birvé), a career woman, newly promoted up the ranks at the Top Girls Employment Agency.

The set, from designer Mary Moore, is stark and basic, save for the impressive glass ceiling which cracks and rotates throughout the play, in line with the mood of each scene. Props and furniture are used sparingly but to good effect, allowing easy transition from scene to scene and are complimented by Mark Pennington’s excellent lighting. Backdrop images are projected onto the cyclorama during the latter scenes, but unfortunately these are rather uninspiring and at times prove an unwelcome distraction from the action, rather than an addition to the overall effect.

While in some ways the subject matter of the play is a bit dated, there are many themes which provide interesting talking points. Ideas such as the potential struggle to find a balance between career and family, the right for a woman to choose an alternative path in life, and the fight against the misogynistic views of some parts of society, all encourage reflection on how things used to be, how they’ve changed and how they remain the same. Unfortunately there are many issues with the show which prevent these themes being what most audience members are likely to recall.

It is the structure of the play that is its greatest hurdle. The opening “dream sequence” scene brings together Marlene and five other women from various realms of history or literature, at a dinner party. They talk about their lives and the impact that men, and society’s views about and treatment of women, have had on them. It is an interesting and engaging conversation, though the overlap in dialogue is less fluid than in real life and at times requires the audience to split their attention between several trains of discussion. This is a strong scene from the ensemble, with Sally Hildyard’s portrayal of Dull Gret particularly enjoyable.

From this fanciful arena – which could easily pass as a stand alone short play – the action moves to the more realistic settings of impoverished rural England and the London based employment agency. At the latter, we witness the different attitudes of women towards the shift in society, through both the employees of the agency and the women for whom they are trying to find employment. Again, there are strong performances all round and these scenes provide an enlightening depiction of the mind-set of the time and the differing viewpoints on the subject, as well as a few laughs.

These contrasting views are also explored and highlighted in the closing scene between Marlene and her sister Joyce (Eileen Darley), who has made very different choices in life by remaining in a small town to raise her daughter, Angie (Antje Guenther). While such sibling relationships are by no means original on the stage, director Catherine Fitzgerald has extracted from Birvé and Darley just the right mix of love and distain for each other to make this interaction both believable and interesting.

Despite Guenther’s solid performance, it is the character of Angie that jars the most. The later scenes portray her as abrasive yet simple, with a somewhat sympathetic desperation for something more from life. In contrast, the introduction to the character sets her up as a foul, aggressive, unhinged and repulsive individual; traits which don’t appear to be present, or necessary, later on. This initial scene appeared to do no more than create a highly inconsistent character, through dialogue and action which offended and alienated.

This proved to be a somewhat erratic production and while there are several things to like about it – the opportunity to see seven highly talented women on stage at once being one – there are also too many flaws to allow it to be entirely enjoyable.

Kryztoff Rating: 3K

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