It’s exciting to see an all-female cast. Even though I should be expecting it, given the play’s name, I’m pleasantly surprised as six women fill the room, a dinner table awaiting them. The Pilch is a fun venue to be in: the audience are in on the action, an extension of the dinner party. And Churchill’s writing lends itself to intimacy: characters are constantly interrupting one another, and I feel slightly as though I’ve walked in on a cosy girls’ night. But Top Girls is ultimately a play about high-powered individualism and the cost of female success in a man’s world, telling the story of Marlene (Katie Cook), a Thatcher-loving managing director.
The silent waiters in the first act, Hannah Patient and Aisling Taylor, end up lighting up the show. Patient, as Angie, is impressive, handling the nuances of the character with skill and ability. Equally, Taylor provides a great bit of light relief as a posh, gum-chewing twenty-one year old, faking her way through a job interview. Patient and Taylor feel like grounding presences in a play that wanders strangely between monologues by a ninth century female pope (acted hilariously by Paula Kaanders), a thirteenth century Japanese concubine (Leanne Yau), and banal interactions in a sterile workplace.
The plot loosely revolves around a business that, when performed by Oxford students, almost feels like a deliberate parody of the OXWIB society, full of high-powered, manicured women. Intended to be punchy, the workplace scenes sometimes drag, something that is not helped by having two intervals. Whilst Cook and her cohort (Martha Berkmann, Camilla Dunhill) are compelling, I am sometimes left wondering what the point of it is. The problem is more that they are not likeable enough: I feel no sympathy for Cook’s character, and am unable to empathise with the sacrifices she has had to make for her success. It’s a brand of feminist individualism that does not have quite enough gusto, nor enough comic potential, to be convincing – though I am also left wondering if this is a problem with the writing.
The final act, set between Marlene and her sister Joyce (Eilidh Ross), is a difficult domestic drama, as the tensions between the sisters come out during a drunken night in Scarborough. Here credit must be given to the set designer, Ella Easton: Joyce’s home is impressively detailed, again giving the sense that you are sitting on a sofa opposite the two arguing sisters as they sip brandy. Whilst it is moving – I feel particularly warm towards Ross’s quiet performance – it feels like a whole play in itself, isolated from the rest of the action. I struggle to see the connection between the bizarre dinner party of Act 1, full of women from across history, and this moment of domesticity. Churchill’s play uncomfortably straddles the experimental and the domestic. Adam Radford-Diaper’s adaptation is slick and well-acted, often wonderfully absurd and funny, but ultimately leaves me feeling slightly cold.