Frascati fashionista: Suranne Jones as Marlene in Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls"
Caryl Churchill's Top Girls was one of those dramas, like David Hare's Pravda, that defined the 1980s. Now, with a Tory prime minister back in power, urban riots and a recession to get us in the mood for political retro-drama, Churchill's playful but pointed tale of feminist aspiration returns to the Trafalgar Studios in London. If, like your critic, you aspired to be big in the Eighties — or maybe you already were — this is the night out for you.
Max Stafford-Clark has shown unswerving loyalty to the play — he gave it its premiere at the Royal Court in 1982 and revived it in 1991. In this production in the adeptly restored Trafalgar, he has breathed life into the drama of female ambition in a way that defies the decades, while acknowledging the passage of time by hamming up the costume-drama elements.
Behind the obvious political edge of the play lies Churchill's pulsing fascination with the liberating drive of Thatcher's Eighties. Marlene (Suranne Jones), a Thatcher prototype with a strong head for Frascati (did we really drink that?), is celebrating her promotion to the top job at the Top Girls employment agency with a dinner party of history's forgotten top girls: a brilliantly absurdist scene which succeeds because of Churchill's absolute confidence in her writing and her ability to make us suspend disbelief from the rafters.
The guests on this big night out include the doughty Victorian explorer Isabella Bird, the 13th-century courtesan of a Japanese emperor (Catherine McCormack) and Pope Joan (Lucy Briers), who may or may not have held the papacy disguised as a man in the 9th century. Joan describes being stoned to death after giving birth in the midst of a papal procession: "They didn't go down that street again." In the female misery stakes, even she is outbid by Lady Nijo, a feudal Japanese concubine haunted by the callous confiscation of her illegitimate children: "Even if it is just a girl you miss them." Add a twist of thumping (literally) comic zeal from a burping, swearing Viking warrior and you've got one of the most memorable opening scenes in modern drama.