Directed by Jenny Kemp. At the Sumner Theatre 25 August to 29 September 2012.
Top Girls, directed by Jenny Kemp for the MTC, is a revelation. With her uniformly excellent cast and tight, considered control over the details, Kemp has taken a feminist ur-text of the 80’s often best remembered for it’s magical first act, and made it whole again.
Feminism remains a flashpoint for the global culture at large, perhaps more so than ever – and despite the long march of reason in the great levelling between the genders, barely a day goes past where conversation doesn’t turn to whether Australia’s Prime Minister is or is not a ‘cow’, or if (as witnessed recently in the US)there is any such thing as ‘legitimate rape’. Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, set against the background of 80’s Britain where Thatcher has the reins of power, is most devastating in revealing how deep and rich and undeniable the feminine claim to strength and greatness and misery is in the story of the human race. Class strife is another, looming concern that haunts the play – this, too, gives Top Girls an urgent vitality when considering the acceleration of wealth disparity since the 1980’s.
Jenny Kemp has elicited a slew of outstanding performances from her cast. Not a movement or thought is wasted. Anita Hegh is wonderful throughout, giving Marlene an arch dash of Ab Fab’s wit while capturing the hollow depths within her character. Sarah Ogden brings adept physicality and humour to the hellish story of Dull Gret, and Maria Theodorakis shows considerable range in conveying both the humanity of Pope Joan and the quiet desperation of Marlene’s struggling sister Joyce. Eryn Jean Norvill, as in her recent stint as Ophelia in MTC’s production of Hamlet, is mesmerising as Angie, the damaged innocent in the middle of the cultural storm. Her evocation of the child is both brittle and bold at once, and is a truly first-class performance.
Watching a production like this can remind the audience that first and foremost, theatre is an act of movement – not just the physical body moving through the space but also the movement of language, how it is embodied, how it evokes characters in the mind of the audience, how it rises and falls, challenges, where it turns back in on itself. Everything in this production conveys meaning not in a clever or self-conscious way, but artfully – and in what one feels is a deeply personal manner. This, at last, is integral to this rendition of Top Girls succeeding where it does. It powerfully reminds us that the personal is political.
The thicket of tongues and accents that the play sustains is a challenge for any ensemble. Geraldine Cooke as dialect coach has coaxed faithful cadences from all the actors, and never is the audience lost for meaning – unless Churchill wants them to be. It is in this dazzling overlap of language and that Jenny Kemp and the production as a whole takes flight, with the tempo and interplay of argument perfectly pitched. Dale Ferguson’s restrained, refined and ably managed sets background the language beautifully – unfussy, and transporting – and the composer Elizabeth Drake’s soundtrack is deliberate and effective.
If the main stages are to continue presenting modern classics, then one can only hope they all carry at least the standard that this production achieves. Actorly intelligence, supple lighting, a mercurial and engaging script and a disciplined and interrogative director have combined to bring a potent, powerful and utterly memorable rendition of Top Girls to the Sumner this spring.
original review via everguide.com.au