THE Melbourne Theatre Company now has two plays by contemporary English writers at its two main city venues. The Athenaeum has Tom Stoppard’s ‘The Real Thing’ while Russell Street has Caryl Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’.

Pamela Rabe in Top Girls

Stoppard is the more celebrated of the two. Yet if I had to choose between their works — both a hit with New York and London audi-ences — my choice would be ‘Top Girls’.

It may not have Stoppard’s formal neatness and control: nor does it have his dazzling command of language. It begins with one of the best scenes in the modern British theatre, but tends to fall away after interval.

What it does have, though, is vitality and conviction. Its women characters — all 16 of them — are the real thing. They leap off the page to confront their audience — not aggressively but with engaging good humor. You would have to be mean-spirited not to warm to it.

Churchill’s theme is success and leadership. and the price that women have to pay when they seek to make it in a man’s world.

The first scene. a bizarre dinner party. brings together a collection of famous and not-so-famous women cnylied from the pages of history. All of them have gathered at a restaurant to celebrate the elevation to managing director of Marlene, a head of a top employment agency.

The top girls at her table are the 9th century Pope Joan (who some would like to believe did not exist): the 131h-century Japanese courtesan, Lady Nijo, who certainly did (and wrote about it); a Victorian traveller of renown, Isabella Bird; an obedient and long-suffering marquis’s wife, the patient Griselda of ‘The Canterbury Tales’; and Dull Gret, the crusading subject of a Brueghel painting.

The dinner is a series of overlapping monologues and occasional exchanges in which each of the guests talks about her times, her troubles, her adventures and her journeys, and her treatment at the hands of men. Their experiences are depressing, but the treatment is delicious.

In the second half fantasy gives way to naturalism; the restaurant to Marlene’s employment agency. A series of brief encounters be-tween the agency staff and their job applicants climaxes in a head-on confrontation between the new boss and her less successful sister.

“I don’t believe in class”, the upwardly socially mobile Marlene, a self-confessed admirer of Mrs Thatcher, says. “Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes.”

Churchill does not say so — she has the grace not to moralise or preach — but it is clear that what Marlene is saying is rubbish. She has made it to the top by being tough. ruthless and hard-headed. But not every woman can be like her. Her sister obviously cannot. nor can the retarded daughter Angie who is the key to the sisters’ relationship.

Indeed. the question which the play poses is not can women succeed in a man’s world but is the price they have to pay for doing so worth it?

Roger Hodgman’s production of this invigorating work is masterly. At last the MTC seems to have found a director (albeit a part-time one) who is sensitive to all the nuances of the text before him, and who can bring it absorbingly into life without resort to gimmickry or stage “business”.

From his cast of seven, who share the 16 roles between them, Hodgman has drawn excellent performances all round. Pamela Rabe, nicely Italianate tends to dominate the dinner party; while in the second half the strongest forces are the successful Marlene (Belinda Davey) and her unsuccessful sister (Nancy Black).

But there are other neat and deftly drawn performances by the others too in a variety of contrasting roles: Babs McMillan as the 19th-century adventuress with a soppy husband. Genevieve Picot as both the Lady Nijo and a Job agency executive, Karin Fairfax in three vignette parts, and Joy Dunstan, amusing as Dull Gret and touching as the repressed daughter Angie.

‘Top Girls’ is not a well-made play in the sense of being carefully rounded out. The structure is loose and unpredictable; interesting characters disappear before they have a chance to establish themselves.

For all that, this is a play which engages its audience at every point. Warmly recommended.

Source: The Age – 01 March 1984