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theatre review: top girls

Set in Margaret Thatcher’s England, Top Girls portrays a world in which women are oppressed by the capitalist social system in which they live. It is a play so entrenched in its era that the actors’ costumes are topped off with shoulder pads. The play made waves when it was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 1982; it was a product of its time, and while there is clearly still great disparity between the sexes, its inclusion in State Theatre Company’s 2012 season is questionable.

Famously opening with a dinner party where Marlene (Ulli Birvé) celebrates her promotion at Top Girls employment agency, Caryl Chuchill’s script leaves us with no doubt about the focus of the production. Marlene is joined by famous women from throughout history, literature, art and folklore: from traveller Isabella Bird (Eileen Darley) to Lady Nijo (Lia Reutens) to Dull Gret (Sally Hildyard) from Brueghel’s painting, the seven characters onstage are strong women who have forged their own path in their respective times. Lady Nijo’s costume is a little distracting in the scene, her yellow one-shouldered dress cutting well below her right breast, exposing a strapless bra – but the humour is played well.

The rest of the play focuses on the problems faced by women the 1980s both in the workplace and at home. We see the resentment that women in high positions endure from both women and men; we see the struggles of motherhood; we see the hardship of being a low achiever. As Marlene’s niece Angie, a 16 year old high school dropout, Antje Guenther is the standout. Her brutish physicality and snivelling, greasy haired hopelessness is a stark contrast with Birvé’s forthright Marlene. The cast as a whole is strong, although the first act drags a little. Director Catherine Fitzgerald has done a fine job at presenting this play.

However strong the cast and their accents may be, the production raises questions. The set is a painfully obvious representation of women’s hardship: a glass ceiling hangs over the stage, appearing smashed in some scenes and intact in others. It moves haphazardly between the scenes, never coming quite together and becoming altogether distracting. It further confuses the audience by implying that the glass ceiling has been broken. It has not; the gender pay gap remains at around 17.5%.

While I enjoyed the production, I am not convinced that a 1982 play about feminism will inspire people to realise that women are still not treated as equals. The larger audience will not be aware of the systematic degradation experienced by women, and I fear that they will see the problems presented in the play as existing in the past: a quaint, if horrible, history. A more recent play would challenge people’s conceptions of gender equality – but it is not only the play’s age which makes its programming seem questionable. After much debate about women in theatre, with their positions as directors and Artistic Directors consistently being outnumbered by men, choosing a 1980s feminist play represents the easy fix. It will take more than one all-female play to challenge the norms of Australian theatre. I look to State Theatre’s 2013 season announcement in the hope that the issue will be addressed with greater diligence.

Top Girls plays at the Dunstan Playhouse until September 8. Tickets from $29 at Bass.

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