Rocket Theatre’s recent production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls was an entertaining, emotionally powerful masterclass by a talented cast and crew. Co-Directors Alvi Lindborg-Koh and Maariya Khalid, along with the directing team of Felicity Rickard and Trista Wong, created an intriguing play of divides; political chasms, ideas of femininity, north against south, and barriers to women were all evoked by striking oppositional staging. Characters were separated by wooden tables, sisters were placed diagonally across the stage and pitch-black scene changes split the play, creating a sense of disconnect and separation. The set was abundant with displays of neglect and decay. Wilted flowers drooped in the corner of Joyce’s house, Angie’s mud-stained blue dress was torn, and the sparse, minimalist set transported the audience directly into the harsh 1980s world of Top Girls. The production team of Sarah Kelly and Phoebe Case managed to create a wonderfully immersive experience, helped by the intimate environment of the City Theatre which brought the packed audience closer to the actors, before the inky-black curtain clattered back across the stage, separating them from us again.
Top Girls at its core is the story of Marlene (Bethan Avery), a successful employment executive who has moved away from home to further her career, leaving behind her sister Joyce (Zara Stokes-Neustadt) and daughter Angie (Esmé Lane) who believes Marlene is her aunt. The play opens with Marlene throwing a dinner party for a variety of historical and mythical women including Lady Nijo (Khaliun Mark), Pope Joan (Sylvie Norman-Taylor), Isabella Bird (Molly Bell), Dull Gret (Ellie Mather) and Patient Griselda (Rigel Cian). The characters entered one by one in increasingly amusing costumes (Nijo’s bright Kimono, Joan’s papal mitre and Gret’s plastic Viking helmet spring to mind) before sitting around a Last Supper-esque table and drinking vast amounts of wine. The cast expertly performed Churchill’s iconic overlapping dialogues, cutting across each other’s stories of suffering, rape and murder with witty quips and juxtaposing tales. Molly Bell was particularly brilliant, retelling stories of her Victorian explorations with a hilarious Prince-Margaret-like accent, delivering mocking eye rolls and glaring looks at anyone who dared interrupt her.
The play then moves to Marlene’s employment agency, where the news of her promotion over a male co-worker has just emerged. Sylvie Norman-Taylor and Ellie Mather were a riotous double act as Win and Nell, interviewing clients with sardonic questions before laughing at their own salacious stories about affairs and colleagues. A plethora of different characters appear for interviews, with many of the cast doubling up these roles, and performing them excellently. Khaliun Mark delivered a great performance as Louise, a dry, overlooked middle-manager desperate to move to a company which appreciates her, and Molly Bell played Jeanine, an uncertain girl wanting to be near her fiancée but also travel. The diametrically opposed themes of stasis and movement recurred throughout the play, suggested by the overlapping dialogue and the production team’s lively scene change music which contrasted with the stark, harsh lighting of Joyce’s house, and the lingering silences masterfully crafted by Bethan Avery and Zara Stokes-Neustadt. The first act also introduced us to Esmé Lane as Angie, Marlene’s daughter, and Iqra Khadiza, whose rendition of Kitt helped showcase Angie’s coercive influence and cruel sensibility.
The action culminates a year before the main events of the play, when Marlene visits Joyce and Angie. Esmé Lane’s youthful enthusiasm was sharply contrasted with the worn, bitter rivalry of her mother and aunt. Zara Stokes-Neustadt was superb as Joyce, with her clarity of movement, and focussed speech bringing real emotional depth to the play. Her northern accent brilliantly contrasted with Bethan Avery’s southern tone dividing the sisters vocally as well as physically. Their potent argument about motherhood, Thatcherism, and success was poignant and heartfelt. Bethan Avery’s transformation throughout the play was striking to watch, moving from cold executive, to caring mother, to broken sister, her illusory world shattered by Joyce’s brutal reality.
This was a masterful performance from Rocket Theatre where acting, design and production culminated in an engaging emotional rollercoaster which will be remembered by the audience for a while to come.