July 5, 2007
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Play Review: Top Girls

'Top Girls' is top-notch
By -- Sun Media


Cara Pifko plays long-suffering Griselda and Megan Follows is the elegant Marlene in Top Girls.

In tackling a revival of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, Soulpepper has obviously taken a clue from the title when it comes to staging the 25-year-old work.

As a result, the production that opened night at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts is not only called Top Girls, but features a whole bouquet of them as well, at least if one is prepared to dismiss seven incredibly talented women -- eight, if you count director Alisa Palmer, and you most definitely should -- as mere girls.

Throw in the fact that Churchill's observations on feminism are as relevant today as when she first put pen to paper back in the early days of Margaret Thatcher's Britain -- alas, more a comment on the snail's pace of evolving social attitudes than on the playwright's enduring genius -- and it all still adds up to an evening of compelling theatre.

It's rarely more compelling, however, than in its opening scene, as a group of famous historical women, both real and fictional, gather to celebrate the elevation of a contemporary woman to their elite sisterhood.

After years of hard work, it seems, the elegant and polished Marlene, played by Megan Follows, has been promoted to senior management status at the Top Girls Employment Agency, and in celebration, she has summoned everyone from Pope Joan (Ann-Marie MacDonald) and Japanese poet and imperial concubine, Lady Nijo (Robyn Stevan) to Scottish adventuress Isabella Bird (Kellie Fox) and the long-suffering Griselda (Cara Pifko), whose life, it seems, was half fairy tale and half nightmare.

As dinner parties go, it's a bit of a free-for-all, as each woman competes to tell her story, all the while getting progressively drunker on Marlene's not-inconsiderable hospitality.


Riotously funny and often simultaneously deeply sad, it seems at first to be a brilliant scene setter, but in the end, proves to be a major challenge to both cast and director, all of whom must maintain its high energy, once the dinner guests have departed and the play returns to Marlene's workaday life.

Happily, this cast and this director are more than up to the task. Quickly jettisoning their historical gladrags, MacDonald, Stevan, Fox, Pifko and castmates Diana Donnelly and the always impressive Liisa Repo-Martell become denizens of the modern world.

Together, working through Churchill's highly episodic and often seemingly disjointed script, they sketch in Marlene's back story, recreating a voyage marked by often cruel choices between heart and head. While Follows provides a strong throughline, it is in these expository scenes that the rest of the cast gets to shine, as Palmer draws polished work from all the rest of her cast, most notably from Fox, who is, without doubt, one of the finest actors working the stage in Canada, as well as from Repo-Martell and MacDonald.

Clearly, Churchill at time of writing was distressed with the either/or choices between femininity and feminism that women have always faced in a male-dominated capitalist society, and even though the work is clearly set in Thatcher's Britain, it is not anchored there, save by Judith Bowden's intrusive and monolithic set.

Weighted down as it is by Bowden's polemical design, the play fails to fully address the universality of the issues Churchill raises, not the least of which is the role other women play in perpetuating historical inequities.

Still, what's important here is that this production of Top Girls, for all its minor flaws, is finally only a trifle shy of top-notch.
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