The cast of Top Girls | New Theatre (Pic: Bob Seary)

Alice Livingstone is one of the foundation stones (well, almost) of New Theatre and it’s she who so capably directs its production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, a play about a go-getting woman named Marlene, written in 1982. With undue modesty, Livingstone claims it’s down to her dream cast. However, it’s true, it is a dream cast: names and faces tat mightn’t be as familiar to you as some, but which are as good as any and better than many.

Marlene (Julia Billington) sacrifices much for her career. She leaves her family behind, including her illegitimate baby daughter. Her sister, Joyce, agrees to take on that responsibility, rather than see the child adopted out to a stranger. Much as it’s an examination of women’s roles, it’s even more palpably a tilt at the scourge of Thatcherism which was in full swing at the time. Marlene, at least in some sense, is The Iron Lady.

It’s a courageous and delicate debate Churchill inspires, this female balancing act between throwing oneself headlong into the rigours and demands of the free marketplace, with its historical investment in all things male and retaining credibility both in one’s own eyes and others’, as embracing at least some semblance of feminism. A conundrum, to be sure. In inspiring it, neither does the playwright allow us to resile or cower from contemplating and responding.

For my money, too, the play presciently raises the spectre of the ‘me, me, me!’ generation, or generations, since the disease seems to have now infected all age groups, to a lesser but, probably and unfortunately, greater extent. This isn’t to judge Marlene: she’s a modern woman trying to grapple with the enormity of expectations placed upon her; whether to be a good mother, whatever that means; to be  a corporate success; a ‘decent’ person; loving and kind; what-have-you.

When we first meet Marlene, she’s hosting a dinner party for famous women of historical and fictional import. There’s Pope Joan (Sarah Aubrey), she of medieval legend who, we’re led to believe, held sway for several years. The story is most likely apocryphal, but serves as a powerfully accentuated motif for women encroaching on exclusively male territory. Again, the Thatcher parallel can hardly be denied. Joan even gave birth, during a street procession, which likely aroused a whiff of suspicion as to her gender. As Joan herself calmly tells it, it did, resulting in her being stoned to death. She gets stoned (well, pissed) at this gathering, too, culminating in her reciting a long Latin tract. It’s funny, in the most surreal possible sense.

Since her promotion to managing director of the headhunting agency for which she works, or even before it, Marlene has probably felt like she’s been stoned to death. Her own sister resents her, seeing her, unequivocally, as self-seeking. There’s envy present, but a dissonance of aloes, too. Joyce (Sarah Aubrey, in act two) has been picked up the pieces; the shower of splinters and shards left behind when Marlene crashed through the glass ceiling. The dynamics between Marlene and Sarah are faultlessly dramatised by Billington and Aubrey (methinks this is where Livingstone enters expertly into proceedings): it’s as if we’re flies on the wall, eavesdropping on a climactic, cathartic, have-it-out scene in the middle section of their lives.

But back to the hallucinatory dinner table of the first act, in which we find Marlene’s psyche populated by the likes of Isabella Bird (Cheryl Ward), the very real nineteenth-century English explorer well-known for her dislike of Australia. She’s actually the first of Marlene’s guests to arrive and represents a primal part of Marlene’s makeup: like Isabella, who strenuously resisted the advances of a man who loved her in deference to her migratory vocation (‘a man any woman might love, but no sane woman would marry’), Marlene, while being a serial monogamist, has eschewed any longer-term attachments, for fear they might interfere with her career. Ward imbues Bird with the air of the detached, fiercely independent Victorian-era woman; one who flew from every opportunity to settle.

Bishanyia Vincent is Lady Nijo, a thirteenth-century Japanese concubine, very much in denial of the tragedy of a life she was drafted into by her own father, who pressed her into service with the emperor at just 14. She copes by falsely glamourising her experiences. Presumably, Churchill is offering up a sad portrait of a painted lady seen to offer nothing other than her body and, in availing antiquity, showing how little distance we’ve travelled in a man’s, man’s world.

Dull Gret, the invention of Pieter Breughel for his painting, Dulle Griet, is played with pigheaded peasantry by Claudia Barrie. She’s the archetype of what we used to call ‘simple’; a woman warrior leading her f(for female)-troop into hell, to fight the devil. Well, that’s in the painting. At table, it’s as if she’s come straight from the excessive heat of the battleground, famished. She has little to say, but much to eat. She, too, has her dreams, but few resources, other than brutishness, to achieve them. Still, like her sisters, she has gone boldly.

Ainslie McGlynn’s Patient Griselda is a kind of Cinderella, originally conceived by Boccaccio (the early renaissance Italian author, not a sophisticated kind of sandwich loaf), but adopted and adapted by Chaucer, for The Canterbury Tales. She, like Gret, is but a peasant girl, albeit of a somewhat more benign nature and pledges unwavering obedience to a marquis, in exchange for betrothal. Like many women we probably know or to whom we’re even related, her story, while shocking, isn’t new. Almost inevitably, her husband cruelly exploits her faithfulness and yet, incongruously, she remains the first to spring to his defence. McGlynn renders her with all the guilelessness and inscrutability of character you’d expect.

Almost all the actors play multiple roles, but Maeve MacGregor has to wait till the second act to really come into her own, not least as Kit, Angie’s bespectacled, twelve-year-old friend. Angie? Yes, Angie (Barrie) is Marlene’s daughter, who cottons on to Marlene’s true identity, as her mother, despite a certain dullness. The scenes in which Angie and Kit feature are observed with the keenest possible eye for mannerisms. Angie is at that age (16). She’s brash, giving short shrift to the younger Kit and backchat to her “mother”, Joyce. These are precious performances.=

In another scene, Vincent is Win and McGlynn Nell, Marlene’s co-workers, now relegated to second fiddle, following Marlene’s promotion. Cattiness and exclusion prevails: they don’t know whether to celebrate Marlene’s success or begrudge it. In effect, they do both. The atmosphere between the three is redolent of real-life office politics. Another salient character, interviewed by Win, is Louise a dowdy, washed-up, forty-six year-old woman who’s decided to finally throw in the towel, having worked long hours for the same thankless employer for more years than she cares to remember. She’s practically lost count of the men promoted over her and, for all her trouble and sacrifice, finds herself, loveless and devoid of a social life, with no alternative job prospects. Ward nails the all-too-recognisable, deeply tragic complexity.

Aubrey dons some cats eye glasses to appear as Mrs Kidd, Howard’s wife. Howard is the guy Marlene’s ambition has seen off. The abrasive, unattractive, but arguably well-meaning Mrs. Kidd comes to speak, or plead, on her husband’s behalf, getting short, expletive shrift from Marlene, who seems impervious to Mrs. Kidd’s alternative reality. In a way, alongside the divergent lifestyle decisions she and her sister have made, Mrs. Kidd is her inaccessible alter ego; a blast from the non-feminist past she can’t or won’t confront. When she later learns Howard has had a heart attack, she feels no more guilt or compunction; (not that she necessarily ought).

Churchill seems to be passing some more generalised comment about a lack of connection, empathy and compassion that would’ve been and was very obvious under Thatcherism, but surely no less so now, which is one of the factors that keeps this play very much alive, even if Churchill herself thought about it as having little, if any, likely shelf-life beyond the eighties. There is clear comparison, too (Churchill has spoken of it, so it’s no profound insight), between the socialistic “collectivity” of British versus the “you go, girl!” sisterhood of American feminism, at least of the period, which might serve as a still broader commentary about the dissonance between old and new worlds.

While the set is quite ugly and cumbersome, lighting and sound are adequate, but it’s the text and its vital exposition, thanks to uniformly surpassing performances and mature, sure-footed direction that set this production apart. It’s so good, it even seems to surmount at least some of the criticisms levelled at it, or able to be, such as a certain lack of cohesion between acts: they could almost be separate plays, a la Angels In America.

The Iron Lady is dead. Long live iron ladies. But, one hopes, of a different ilk to the oppressive Maggie, who managed to polarise people as intensely as Churchill’s play.

The details: Top Girls plays the New Theatre until August 3. Tickets on the company website.