BWW REVIEW: The Balance Between Career and Caring Is Contemplated in TOP GIRLS

BWW REVIEW: The Balance Between Career and Caring Is Contemplated in TOP GIRLS

Monday 19th February 2018, 6:30pm Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

In an era when female power and rights are being asserted and America was on the verge of its first female president, Imara Savage opens Sydney Theatre Company's 2018 season with Caryl Churchill's TOP GIRLS. Presented 36 years after it debuted in London, this multi layered historic work retains a relevance as women are still struggling to achieve the recognition they deserve if they won't sacrifice something of themselves and conform to a man's world.

BWW REVIEW: The Balance Between Career and Caring Is Contemplated in TOP GIRLS
Contessa Treffone, Kate Box, Helen Thomson, Heather Mitchell and Michelle Lim Davidson in Sydney Theatre Company's Production of Top Girls © Brett Boardman

The premise of the work is that middle aged career woman Marlene (Helen Thomson) has just received a promotion, ahead of a male colleague Howard Kidd, to a coveted management job at the Top Girls recruitment agency so she is celebrating at a surreal gathering of women from across history. Real women from history include the 9th century Pope Joan who disguised herself as a man to continue her education but was stoned to death when her deception was discovered when she gave birth during a papal procession; Lady Nijo (Michelle Lim Davidson), a 13th century Japanese concubine who believed she was honoured to be 'chosen' to service the Emperor and bare his children that she would never see before she became a wandering nun; and Isabella Bird (Kate Box), a world traveller and writer, more intent on her career than her family or finding love. Two fictional characters join the gathering, Pieter Breughel's subject of Dulle Griet, a 16th century oil painting which sees Dull Gret (Contessa Treffone) leading an army of women as they pillage and plunder hell; and Patient Griselda (Paula Arundell), a patient and obedient peasant woman from Boccaccio and Chaucer's 14th century stories who is forced to give up her children by a royal husband who is ultimately testing her loyalty in a twisted game. The fanciful but masculine gathering of women makes way for more real situations, both at the Top Girls offices where Marlene and her collegues show little feminine sympathy for the women coming to them for work, and Marlene's sister Joyce's (Kate Box) run down rural home which she shares with teenage daughter Angie (Contessa Treffone).

BWW REVIEW: The Balance Between Career and Caring Is Contemplated in TOP GIRLS
Heather Mitchell and Michelle Lim Davidson in Sydney Theatre Company's Production of Top Girls © Brett Boardman

The intimacy of the scenes is achieved in the broad Drama Theatre stage by David Fleischer's clean staging and Damien Cooper's focused lighting. Gold tinsel flutters from the ceiling of the stage which is occupied by a round banquet table and smaller beverage table. Simple corporate banquet chairs and plain white linen ensures Renee Mulder's magnificent costumes of sumptuous fabrics and distinctive styles remain the focus of the opening cross century celebration. The Top Girls offices and interview rooms are indicated by the Venetian blind dressed windows, planter boxes and big desks, complete with late 70's orange accents prevalent in the early 1980's. Mulder has outfitted the employees of the Top Girls Agency with typically 80's styles that convey the power dressing, keeping the fierce women in solid colours in contrast to the patterns and prints of the candidates being interviewed. The exterior and interior of Joyce's home is presented with a corner of the shabby kitchen that looks out over the long yard, in which old hard rubbish has been relegated and now serves as hiding spots for Angie and her young friend Kit (Claire Lovering).

BWW REVIEW: The Balance Between Career and Caring Is Contemplated in TOP GIRLS
Contessa Treffone and Claire Lovering in Sydney Theatre Company's Production of Top Girls © Brett Boardman

Savage's excellent cast present Churchill's complex dialogue, which includes a great degree of talking over each other, with a natural ease to convey the somewhat self absorbed natures of the characters at the gathering as the women take on more masculine traits of assuming they know the other person's story and mansplaining. Lim Davidson's presentation of Lady Nijo's naivety and belief that she should be honoured to be forced into prostitution to the Emperor is contrasted with Box's expression of the brash and forceful Isabella Bird who often blunders on with her story before Lady Nijo has finished. Mitchell is captivating as the intellectual and straight-talking Pope Joan as she talks about her papacy, ignorance of anatomy and her eventual discovery with an educated upper class tone in contrast to the content of conversation. Arundell gives Patient Griselda an innocence and calmness even as she shares the story that has the gathering horrified at the Marquis inhumane test of obedience and Treffone conveys Dull Gret's uneducated peasant status through outbursts of limited language, opting to spend most of the dinner party purloining items from the table to steal away in her bag. As with the historic women's sacrifices and their increasingly masculine traits, Lim Davidson and Arundell join Thomson in presenting the modern women as equally ruthless as they seek success by replicating male methods rather than seeking to further the sisterhood with solidarity.

BWW REVIEW: The Balance Between Career and Caring Is Contemplated in TOP GIRLS
Helen Thomson and Kate Box in Sydney Theatre Company's Production of Top Girls © Brett Boardman

Whilst the majority of Churchill's characters aren't particularly likable as she questions what was the modern feminist movement of the early 1980's where women were morphing into men to move ahead in the workplace, the young innocent and messed up Angie is the only character that elicits any form of sympathy. Treffone captures the 16 year old's feeling that she doesn't quite belong, resulting in a resentment for the woman she believes to be her mother, Joyce. Perpetually told she's stupid with no future, Angie is immature for her age and Treffone therefore gives her a childlike expression and unconfident physicality. She captures Angie's idolisation of her Aunty Marlene with juvenile excitement whilst she compensates for her lack of control by bullying her friend Kit who is generally too young to know better.

BWW REVIEW: The Balance Between Career and Caring Is Contemplated in TOP GIRLS
Paula Arundell, Helen Thomson and Michelle Lim Davidson in Sydney Theatre Company's Production of Top Girls © Brett Boardman

TOP GIRLS is an interesting exploration of the trade off between power and other important aspects of life, particularly for women trying to rise the ranks of corporate careers. Whilst women on the way up would like a world where women help each other along the way and they could still have family as well as a career, this work is still relevant as many females in senior roles still don't know how to support their own and society still judges women for wanting to 'have it all'.

TOP GIRLS

12 February - 24 March 2018

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

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From This Author Jade Kops

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