In 1982, the New York Times described Top Girls as “intent on breaking rules.” Thirty years later, Top Girls feels rather a lot like a Well Made Play. Playwright Caryl Churchill has been so influential on the current crop of playwrights that seeing her work on stage now as part of the canon it feels simply that – part of the canon, no longer radical.
And in that tradition, Catherine Fitzgerald’s production for the State Theatre Company is a well made production. Maintaining the eighties setting with shoulder pads intact, and with solid performances from the cast the show rips along much faster than you would suspect of its nearly three hours running time.
Mary Moore’s set keeps it mainly simple: a curved dining table in the first scene, several (computer-less, even for 1982) desks and a office percolator, a small wall for Kit (Carissa Lee) and Angie (Antje Guenther)’s hideaway, a couch and table in Joyce’s home; location settings somewhat unnecessarily indicated by large stagnant projections. The simplicity of Moore’s set – which places the characters and text at the centre of the production, is overshadowed though, by a confusingly literal interpretation of the “glass ceiling” metaphor.
At the dinner party the glass ceiling has been broken – although it is very clear that most of these women just managed to survive within the patriarchy, not beyond it: being stoned to death, giving up their children at the test of their partners, living as a concubine and a nun. At the office, too, the glass ceiling is broken – Marlene (Ulli Birvé) receiving a top job at Top Girls, this is clear enough. In Suffolk, at the home of Marlene’s working class sister Joyce (Eileen Darley), the ceiling remains intact and unbroken. Most confusingly, though, is when the glass ceiling descends during the last scene of the play (the first scene chronologically), as Marlene and Joyce talk. Saying what, exactly? The more time you spend in a lower class area the lower your ceiling becomes? The act of women talking to each other causes the ceiling to drop? The restrictions on the working class Joyce are certainly greater than her now middle class sister, but why the lowering?