'Top Girls' or 'A crash course in high flying.'

'Top Girls', Caryl Churchill
Trafalgar Studios, 16th August 2011
Written for Culture Wars

The cast of Top Girls. Photo Credit: John Haynes

'Top Girls' is the theatrical equivalent of a (very, very good) Magic Eye painting. Initially, Churchill's crazy mozaic of characters, along with her liberal treatment of time and place, feel chaotic and confusing. But train your eyes long enough on this seriously playful piece and a startlingly clear image begins to form. It is a frightening picture, depicting the stamina it takes for a woman to succeed, the sacrifices she must make along the way and the people left behind.

The opening fantasy dinner party is the play's most explicitly odd scene, combining mythical, infamous, dead and alive ladies stretching from 854 to this play's present, the early 1980s. It doesn't really contain the show's 'main ingredients' but is instead a starter course, hinting at the flavours to come. Max Stafford-Clark's subtly surreal direction nods at the strangeness but never fully embraces it. The impression created is that of a dangerously volatile but still feasible gathering.

Most striking about this dinner party, hosted by slick career girl Marlene, is the strange persistence of etiquette. Horrific stories are unleashed of raped Japanese mistresses, Rapunzel lookalikes 'relieved' of their children and female popes stoned to death. Light dinner chat it is not and, yet, barring the final crumbling as the profiteroles roll, order is maintained. Women, the scene suggests, have learnt to have civil conversation about deeply uncivil matters: 'I did think it was remarkably barbaric to kill them, but you learn not to say anything.'

Pope Joan comforts Lady Nijo. There's a sentence you don't write often.

It is this clash between what women are saying and how they must say is – what they are capable of and how they might express it – that crackles consistently here. In the Top Girls office, the Employment Agency where Marlene works, the dialogue between the girls is superficially playful. And yet, the bludgeoning speed of their chat, the absence of breath or thought, hints at something steelier beneath. During a job interview, Marlene tries to ground a rather floaty candidate, but the interviewee's obvious devotion to her husband simply does not fit with Marlene's career-speak. In fact, the only girl who seems capable of sparring with the high flyers is the one who lies consistently through her (very young) teeth.

This idea of the duplicitous life a successful woman must lead is exacerbated by Churchill's extensive use of doubling. Most actresses play three roles and, as the actors make their relentless transformations, we recognise this is the same 'performance' most women undertake every day. Stella Gonet snatches every scene she's in, melding cool strength and trapped warmth in all her creations. There is never a plea for pity from her weathered characters, but you yearn to reach out all the same.

Olivia Poulet is brilliant as Angie – a simple girl, who has a complicated relationship with her 'aunt' Marlene. Poulet expresses the girl's mental difficulties through every action, her arms stiff as lead and her fingers stretched like claws. But this awkward girl is able to provide something the high flyers cannot. When Angie visits Marlene at the office, she instinctively hugs her aunt. It is the first physical expression of affection in a play flooded with women. When a colleague bumps into Angie, she finds herself spilling her entire life story. Almost by accident, she speaks the truth. 'Simple' Angie, who in the words of her aunt 'won't make it', has a freedom these ladies have long since lost: she has not yet learnt the art of talking, and acting, like someone she is not.