Nearly three decades after it first played to Melbourne audiences, Top Girls is back on the Melbourne Theatre Company stage. Opening with a now-famous dinner party scene featuring women from 10 centuries, Caryl Churchill’s iconic 1982 play about women and power is an unconventional mash-up of magical realism and kitchen-sink drama.

The guests have all been brought together by the eponymous 1980s top girl Marlene, a career woman who’s celebrating her recent promotion as head of an employment agency. Over the evening the dinner guests proceed to have a bit of a knees-up, during which their stories emerge.

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There’s Victorian traveller and author Isabella Bird, an adventurous woman who regrets her failure to be a “proper” lady. Medieval unfortunate Patient Griselda, based on a character from Chaucer, tells of having her children taken away by her husband as a test of her obedience; equanimous transvestite Pope Joan relates the surreal tale of giving birth while in the middle of a papal procession through Rome; Japanese aristocrat Lady Nijô talks about her life at court and later as a Buddhist nun. Each of their achievements are shadowed by sacrifice, loss and guilt. Marlene, who has made sacrifices of her own in order to succeed, listens and gets legless.

This first scene takes up a significant chunk of the play, but it’s merely the prologue. The central action occurs back in the ‘real world’, namely Marlene’s London office and the Essex backwater where she was raised. It’s still the home of her estranged sister Joyce and rancorous teenaged niece Angie. When Joyce and Marlene cross paths for the first time in years, all of the play’s implicit questions about gender, class and agency crystallise.

Angie, brilliantly portrayed by Eryn Jean Norvill, is a childlike, mercurial character. Her scenes have a sense of real intimacy and are some of the strongest in the play. By contrast, the dinner party scene — a big set piece that’s hard to pull off, as the play’s first director has described — is hampered by a forced, overlapping style of delivery which sees each character braying over the others.

There are satisfying performances all round; Anita Hegh’s Marlene is utterly believable, and as Joyce, Maria Theodorakis transcends a sometimes wobbly Essex accent to deliver a powerful performance. Nikki Shiels is charismatic in all three of her parts. Actors doubling-up roles serves a thematic purpose too, suggesting shared female experience through the ages. In some cases we are encouraged to draw direct parallels between the lives of the characters, such as modern office worker Win, who’s sleeping with a married man, and concubine Lady Nijô, both of whom are played with verve by Li-Leng Au.

Despite its nods to different eras, Top Girls is absolutely rooted in the Thatcherite political context in which it was written, one in which collective values were being dismantled to make way for individualism, competition and the pursuit of profit.

Caryl Churchill adroitly shows how, for women like Marlene, Thatcher’s leadership could represent opportunity, freedom and evidence that a woman could be just as ruthless a leader as a man. But from where Joyce stands — a single mother who works as a cleaning lady, with scant chance of a better life — Marlene is a class traitor. Listening to her sister tipsily rhapsodise about Thatcher, Joyce remarks acidly: “I suppose you’d like Hitler too if she was a woman.”

Churchill said in an interview at the time that she intended the play to show how for feminists “just to achieve the same things that men had achieved in capitalist society wouldn’t be a good object”. It’s a critique that runs through Top Girls, most clearly articulated in the conflict between Joyce and Marlene, both of whom are ultimately trapped by the model of success that Marlene has so singlemindedly pursued.

There are aspects of the play’s commentary on gender that still feel thoroughly contemporary. The debate about women ‘having it all’ still rages daily across popular culture, with notable recent flashpoints including a divisive article by US high-flier Anne Marie Slaughter, the appointment of a six-months pregnant woman as CEO of Yahoo, and the death of controversial Sex and the Single Girl author and editor of Cosmopolitan, Helen Gurley Brown.

Given all this, it’s tempting to say of Top Girls that it hasn’t aged a day since it was first written. Or that we are grappling with exactly the same issues now as then. But that isn’t quite right. Women might still face many of the same challenges, but the conversations we have around them have changed, in many cases narrowing down and eschewing the kind of broad cultural critique that Churchill’s play offers.

Ultimately it’s the parts of the play that feel dated that can tell us most about the way we are now. And the fact these days there’s something positively retro about questioning the order of things that makes Top Girls more of a must-see now than ever.

The details: Top Girls plays the MTC’s Southbank Theatre (Sumner) until September 29. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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