A Sour View From The Top
The Stage Club takes on a Churchillian challenge
By Richard Lord
After closing out their 2002 season with a quite commendable production of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, the Stage Club opened up its ’03 campaign in early March with Caryl Churchill’s highly praised (though to my mind, over-praised) Top Girls.
Churchill is, admittedly, one of the most significant British dramatists of the last quarter century. She is an inventive writer who deals boldly with ideas, character and dramatic forms. Churchill places great demands on performers, crew, directors - and audiences. And in the recent production at the Substation, I am afraid that the Stage Club troupe was not able to meet all the demands Churchill presented them with.
The play opens with an intriguing passage into its subsequent main story, which might almost be subtitled “Confessions of Six Much-Harried Women”. Marlene, a quintessential up-by-her-own-bootstraps success story, decides to throw a dinner party to celebrate what we later discover was her promotion to Managing Director of a London-based employment agency, Top Girls. Her quintet of guests are drawn from the annals of history, literature, art - all women of some renown and some hard-won achievement. The roster of high-powered guests includes the 9th century Pope Joan, whose actual existence has been debated for centuries; Isabella Bird, a crusty Briton who became an intrepid globe-trotter after her 40th birthday and then explored the wide world for some 30 years; Lady Nijo, a famous courtesan to a Japanese emperor; and Dull Gret, a prime figure in a Brueghel painting who led an angry crowd in a vigilante-style harrowing of Hell. For contrast, the long-suffering wife from Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale” ambles in as a late arrival. The result is a conversational tour-de-force which quickly devolves into a set of dueling monologues.
Following this overly long opening scene, finally just a prologue to the real tale, we are sprung back and forth in time to get glimpses of corporate star Marlene in her element and the personal price she has had to pay to reach her own pinnacle of success. That price was no less than the loss of her daughter, whom she had to partially abandon, leaving the toddler to be raised in the provinces by her less talented, less ambitious sister. Marlene now plays occasional affectionate aunt to her own daughter, dropping in whenever she can muster the time and emotional energy.
Along the journey to this closing-scene revelation (which actually comes as no great surprise, since in an earlier scene, Marlene’s daughter Angie confides to a friend that she suspects this ‘aunt’ is really her mother), we also learn more about Marlene the successful businesswoman, as we snatch some glimpses of her company’s placement procedures, partially fueled by its sweetened but venomous office climate.
This basic story sits atop a mother lode of rich ironies, the foremost of which is that this woman who has spent a career building this prominent employment agency has, in doing so, condemned her own daughter to a life in which she can hope for nothing but menial jobs. Also, Marlene’s sister Joyce has sacrificed her life so that Marlene can have a successful one of her own, and she now deeply resents that success. Meanwhile, Marlene, a fervent Thatcherite (the play was written in 1982, at the height of the Iron Lady’s power), assails their father for his not having done more as a breadwinner. Labourite sister Joyce is, of course, bitterly incensed by Marlene’s embrace of the Thatcher theology - and the fact that she’s been able to pursue so many of its ideals by imposing so heavily on others. Out of these ironies grow the play’s insights and power.
As already noted, Top Girls is a difficult play for a company to get right; the Stage Club only manages to be intermittently successful, though they are to be commended for taking up the challenge and meeting it as far as they could.
Director Jeremy Samuel’s strengths seem to lie in getting at the marrow of a highly literate text and then working out the emotional vectors of some difficult human relationships. As a result, we were treated to some rather powerful moments in the late stages of the play as we took in the painful disconnections and attempts to reconnect between Marlene and Angie or Marlene and Joyce. We were also witnesses to some chilling moments as we watched the one-upmanship between the Top Girls interviewers and their clients, as well as their own colleagues.
One thing Samuel did not handle well was the staging. Trouble was already apparent in the opening scene where the challenge was to turn this piss-match between five high octane women (and one retiring wife) into more than a consistory of talking heads shooting powerful monologues at each other. Unfortunately, the only vaguely interesting thing visually about this first scene as the Stage Club staged it was the costumes.
Nor was Samuel able to overcome some of the challenges of the Substation space in later scenes. Indeed, the time lapses between scene changes made the emotional threads sag when they should have leapt from one scene to another. Moreover, the climatic confrontation scene between Joyce and Marlene, while strong on the emotional fireworks, was too static.
The Stage Club cast was also uneven - which is not a good thing to be when tackling Caryl Churchill, who often assigns cast members multiple roles. The two most consistent performers here were Audrie Clarke and Barbara Proctor. Clarke proved strong in the sharply contrasting roles of 19th century road-warrior Bird and beleaguered sister Joyce, and added a nice cameo as the wife of the man Marlene beats out for managing director. Proctor also proved convincing in her two dissimilar roles, as Pope Joan and one of the agency’s clients.
Jessica Gale as Marlene needed time to work up to the full powers of her craft. In that first scene, for instance, she came off as a bit peevish, all too tentative, as if she herself had only just been invited to this dinner, then arrived to find herself assigned the role of hostess.
When we next see her at the agency, Gale had settled into her role much more comfortably, and she delivered the needed counterbalance in the climatic scene between Marlene and Joyce most convincingly. But even here, a few more pinches of guilt at abandoning Angie, an extra dollop of pain at the sacrifices she’s imposed on all three of them would have made Gale’s performance more compelling still.
Speaking of that dinner party scene, it presented a good measuring rod for the abilities of actresses in this - or for that matter, any - production of Top Girls. Essentially a bundle of set speeches which allow each actress to focus all attention on herself and her abilities, the dinner at times turns into a contest of their abilities, as the speeches overlap, and characters talk over each other. Churchill’s point seems to be that these ladies could not possibly be all that interested in listening to the others’ accounts, as they find themselves so absolutely fascinating. But the device also serves to show which actresses can handle the tussle of getting their particular stories heard.
In the event, Audrie Clarke and Barbara Proctor more than held their own, while Jessica Gale proved fairly strong, though she could have been even assertive, especially considering that her character was, in fact, the hostess.
Melissa Wansin Wong fit her character into this contest nicely, but as she played the somewhat reticent Patient Griselda, she had been set an easier task than the others. Conversely, Pamela Chong, playing the imperial courtesan Lady Nijo, was simply overpowered during these moments, while Christie Chua came off as not having the stamina for such a head-on competition. In fact, Chua was the weakest player in that opening segment, as even Dull Gret’s powerful speech comparing Hell and her home village - a popular female audition piece, by the way - lacked the fire and brimstone this speech should have.
Chua’s very next appearance, as Angie, also fell short of expectations, as Angie shared with her younger friend her fantasies about killing her supposed mother and going off to London to live with her successful aunt.
But in her following scenes, where Angie actually does drop in on ‘Aunt’ Marlene at the agency and back home where the three females finally engage each other, Chua displayed a hitherto unseen strength, contributing nicely to the success of these scenes. In sum, we can say that when the show needed her most, Chua came through admirably, proving she has definite acting talent when she taps it properly.
Meanwhile, Pamela Chong was passable in her double turn as Lady Nijo (when she didn’t have to go head-to-head against the other monologists) and as Win, an unctuous employee of Top Girls. Melanie Hirsch, a newcomer to the local theatre scene, handled her three quite minor roles nicely, doing a good turn as Angie’s 12-year old confidant, Kit.
Melissa Wansin Wong, who earlier this season had proved that she can be splendid when portraying nice ladies who are neither too assertive nor too demanding, served up a delectable Patient Griselda in the opening scene, though she lacked the requisite nasty streak to make her Top Girls middle executive fully convincing.
The set was rather disappointing, especially when compared to the impressive construction in the Stage Club’s last show, Six Degrees. (That design, by local star Sebastian Zeng, even earned a Life! Theatre award nomination.) Indeed, this Top Girls set had a certain makeshift feel about it, and neither made good use of the space nor enhanced the performance.
This was no minor flaw either, as a strong set can significantly help to differentiate the various worlds conjured up in the play, from the polished offices and interview rooms of the Top Girls agency to the dreary council flat domicile of Joyce and Angie.
The slight confusion at the beginning of every scene as the story lurched from one world to another would have been greatly allayed by a much more effective set design. I do not know whether the paucity of this particular set was due to budgetary constraints or just a lack of attention, but it’s clearly an issue that a troupe such as Stage Club should address when taking on such a play as Top Girls. The obvious work and commitment that went into other aspects of the production deserved a better showcase than this set provided.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003