I do like a bit of theatre. I used to subscribe to the MTC when I lived in Melbourne and when I arrived in London in 2004, I promised that I would immerse myself in all the theatrical delights that this great city had to offer. This happened for a little while (as far as my dwindling Aussie Dollars would stretch anyway) until life got in the way.
Seven years later, I have finally managed to rekindle the embers and, inspired by a cheap ticket to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead a few weeks ago (which, by the way, was fabulous), I have been keeping my eyes peeled for more special offers of the ‘treading the boards’ kind. And that was how my trip to see Top Girls last Wednesday came about.
Marlene has left her home town to explore the world and try her luck as a career girl in the 80s. The play opens with her at dinner with friends, celebrating her promotion to Managing Director of recruitment firm Top Girls. But this is not just any dinner – her friends are women from history:
Pope Joan, who disguised as a man, is said to have been pope between 854-856
Isabella Bird, explorer
Dull Gret, the harrower of Hell
Lady Nijo, the Japanese mistress of an emperor and later a Buddhist nun
Patient Griselda, the patient wife from The Clerk’s Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales
Statement hair, shoulder pads and much white wine abound and the dinner disintegrates into a quite ribald affair.
The rest of the play covers the period from about a year prior right up until the days following Marlene’s promotion and flicks back and forth from the life Marlene left behind, epitomised by that of her sister Joyce and her daughter Angie, to her high flying role at work. There’s a great sense of breaking into a man’s world in these latter scenes, particularly poignant when it is suggested that Marlene has stolen something (the promotion) from someone who ‘really needs it’ (a man).
I remember this as an under current when I started my career in the early 90s (although things had probably progressed a little since the days of Thatcher’s Britain and I was in Australia several thousand miles away). I also remember feeling quite p*ssed off at the slightly patronising tone of others in response to my ‘no marriage, no kids thank you ‘ mantra back in the day (and the tone didn’t really change until I got into my 40s). It was extraordinary to have the opportunity to revisit this time in my life, some 20 years later. How clear things become with 20-20 vision.
I often go along to plays without having any detailed knowledge of the story – I like the sense of discovery this creates rather than knowing what to expect and then having an opinion about whether it (the play) lived up to my expectation.
With Top Girls, this made the dinner scene a little confusing but as the play unfolded, the pennies dropped.
These women each represented different aspects of living in a ‘man’s world’ – whether it was Lady Nijo, who does not see the forced attentions of the Emperor as rape or Patient Griselda, who having promised to obey her husband, amiably forgives his cruelty in taking her children away from her – and the various conversations around the table served to highlight what was ‘expected of them’ as women in their various societies.
So Top Girls was thought-provoking and pithy (in parts), confronting and heart-warming and a great opportunity to revisit the era of Chardonnay and shoulder pads, when women struck another blow for equality, consequences and all.
I absolutely loved it.
If you are in London, you can see Top Girls at London’s Trafalgar Studios until October 29th. You should go peeps, really you should. You can click here to find out how.