A Challenging Production of Caryl Churchill’s <i>Top Girls</i>

  Custom Made Theatre is currently presenting an efficacious production of  “Top Girl” by British playwright Caryl Churchill at Gough Street Playhouse through April 15th.   This is one of the most effectual British socialist plays on feminism that celebrates distinctive women who have acquired influence and affluence. The drama examines the issue of what is meant to be a successful woman in today’s business world.  I first saw this drama at the Royal Court in London’s west end. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in the third year of her “reign” and the original American Production in New York later.  At that time I was very impressed with the writing of feminist playwright.  

“Top Girls” comments on the difference between American feminism which celebrates distinctive women who acquire power and wealth and British socialist feminism which involves collective group gain. There is also an observation on Margaret Thatcher who celebrated personal achievement and belief in the free-market capitalism.

 The opening act is a coup-de-theatre in which Marlene newly promoted boss of the Top Girls employment agency; host a dinner party for iconic women from history in a trendy London restaurant. They are Victorian traveler Isabella Bird; Lady Nijo, a Japanese emperor’s courtesan from the 13th Century; Dull Gret, who is a central character in a Breughel painting who leads a crowd of women to fight the devils in Hell; Pope Joan, who many believe became the Pontiff disguised as a man and Patient Griselda the valiantly obedient wife in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This act is a series of monologs of women that have achieved great things who tell the audience how they surpassed the boundaries traditionally levied by their sex.

The second and third acts (in this case Custom Made merged the two acts) became a “kitchen drama” where in we observe Marlene at work and also in the third act  with her sister and a regressive teenage child Angie. The crux of these two acts is that Marlene firmly believes that the Eighties under Thatcher will be breathtaking. However her sister heatedly asks how the more defenseless are going to cope in this cold-blooded brave new world which will include her backsliding teenage daughter Angie.

Churchill’s writing is slanted, clever and very brave even for audiences of twenty first century. The large female cast under the astute direction of Laura Lundy-Paine gives excellent performances.  However the opening first act involving the historical women could be stronger. Sometimes some of the actresses speak a little too speedily where in the audience loses the core of the speech. These are strong speeches and they need strong performances.  However with time this should improve.


The second and third acts bring out the best in the cast and all give very good performances in this non-linear unconventional drama. Cary Cronholm Rose captures excellently the hidden regrets of the go-getting Marlene in the second and third act. Cat Luedtke rages with justified wrath with her sister Joyce in these acts and Katie Robbins is both mystified and touching as the daughter Angie.  Mimu Tsujimura as Lady Nijo and later as Win gives a graceful performance while Monica Cappuccini is excellent as Pope Joan and later as the angry Louise seeking a job. Megan Putnam completes the female cast and gives a splendid performance playing the waitress, Kit and Shona.

“Top Girls” runs through April 15 at Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough Street, San Francisco.  For information and tickets go to www.custommade.org/topgirls   Coming up next is Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” opening on May 16th