Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill

        "some of them want to use you;

        some of them want to get used by you;

        some of them want to abuse you;

        some of them want to be abused."

Annie Lennox Of The Eurythmics - Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)

Sweet Dreams Are Not Made Of This

When moving to Niagara from Oakville in the 70s to teach in a local high school along with my equally qualified wife, in the staff room there was open speculation by a few Neanderthals - whether it was appropriate that we both teach, and why should my wife take a good job from a man? Sadly, the church that I belonged to then also preferred her to be barefoot and pregnant, cooking in the kitchen. Caryl Churchill's play, Top Girls, examines the weighty issue of women in the workplace not long after our experience - circa1982 when Maggie Thatcher, "The Iron Lady" was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990.

Top Girls is an opportunity for Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell, to strut the collective clout of her wonderfully adept female cast, and Julia Course, Tara Rosling, Claire Jullien, Fiona Byrne, Catherine McGregor, Laurie Paton and Tess Benger are more than up to the task, most playing multiple roles.

The opening restaurant scene, a surreal celebration of Marlene's (Fiona Byrne) promotion is worthy of a Salvador Dali painting, each invited female icon, real or imaginary, obsessed with her own success - Pope Joan (Jullien), who fools the masses into thinking she is a man until she gives birth during a parade on a local street, Dull Gret (Laurie Paton), a soldier from a Breughel painting, who stirs peasant women to invade Hell, and she steals all the silverware and bowls, Isabella Bird (Catherine McGregor), a Victorian adventurer complete with corset, who travels the world, Lady Nijo (Julia Course), a 13th century Japanese concubine and Patient Griselda (Rosling), who married the Marquis of Saluzzo, ordered by her husband to give away her two children to test her obedience.

They shout each other down, talk over one another, advance their own mythology, producing a cacophony of incoherence that ends in collective melancholy. Jullien is adroit as the Pope, increasingly erratic until she reels and spiels in Latin, bouncing and spinning on the stage like a toy top gone berserk while Course's Nijo is the model of Eastern acquiescence enhanced by her thin, elongated limbs and draped kimono. Patten as Dull Gret almost steals the show on body language alone, quick to wantonly ingest food and drink while liberating the table's accoutrements.

Success for these stalwart women is a double-edged sword that instead of joy, produces misery, isolation and fear. Marlene's raucous, dreamlike party leads to a dreary scene in which Course, Benger and Rosling demean one another and make the viewer think long and hard on how culture shapes adolescent sex roles.

Prior to the play, and during it, the women happily dress and prepare for their roles in view of the audience and to the accompaniment of peppy songs from successful female artists such as Madonna, Annie Lennox (the Eurythmics), Sheena Easton and others. (See list at bottom). There is something hypnotic about watching women apply makeup, enhancing their lips and colour while peering at a mirror, witnessing the caterpillar emerge.

At Marlene's workplace, the "Top Girls Employment Agency," she deals with restless women looking for career changes, but she is all business, a cold demeanor lacking empathy, reluctant to assist - "if they're stupid or lazy or frightened, I'm not going to help them get a job, why should I?" After dealing with the wife of the man she beat out for the managerial job (who thinks it unfair that a woman supersedes a male "breadwinner" and asks her to resign her post), we actually appreciate Marlene's candor and rage, particularly when she labels her male rival "a shit" and forces the wife to leave.

In Act II, the price Marlene pays for her "success" is revealed, actually the same price that upwardly mobile male executives pay. She visits her sister (Rosling) who remained at home and agreed to raise Marlene's daughter as her own, with the mentally challenged daughter (Course) suspecting something amiss.

It's a painful scene and Byrne and Rosling are terrific in milking its pathos, Byrne offering a vacuous, "I love you," in between screams, rants and explosive anger involving sacrifice, politics and, of course, feminism, the play ending quite blurry and disjointed. Churchill's piece demonstrates that "You have come a long way, baby" is empty rhetoric with not a single woman portrayed in a positive light and the glass ceiling of social progress undisturbed even with the likes of The Iron Lady in charge, severely rusted it seems. Looking to the future with Hilary Clinton seeking the U.S. Presidency, it is informative to look at the history of the "The Equal Rights Amendment" (ERA).

In 1923, it was introduced in Congress. Highly controversial in terms of the meaning of equality for women, it pitted "feminist against feminist," says historian Judith Sealander, the result, the eventual defeat of the ERA. Middle-class women were supportive. Spokesmen for the working class were strongly opposed, arguing that employed women needed special protections regarding working conditions and hours. In 1972, it passed both houses of Congress and was submitted to the state legislatures for ratification. It seemed headed for quick approval until conservative women in opposition argued that the ERA would disadvantage housewives. Congress set a ratification deadline of March 22, 1979, and extended the ratification deadline to June 30, 1982, but insufficient states ratified the amendment and it died.

Courtesy Shaw Festival

In the end, with Shaw's Top Girls, director Vikki Anderson provides us with six historical roads to feminism, each a worrisome course. All women are spirited, irate and calculating, particularly with one other, and this might help explain their failure as a political wedge to exert real change. As Annie Lennox sings, "some of them want to use you; some of them want to get used by you; some of them want to abuse you; some of them want to be abused." The only relief that we get throughout the action from Anderson and a tremendous mode of contrast employed to highlight the pain, is the calming interludes, watching actors change costumes and sets while grooving to music and playfully assisting one another with their costumes.

This play with all its gravitas is well worth seeing.

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill plays until Sept. 12 at the Court House Theatre. See: or 905-468-2172.

Critics Praise Churchill's TOP GIRLS on Theater Talk

Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls" vs. Robert Pine's "Top Boys"

Director's Notes
By Vikki Anderson

Welcome to our dressing room, our boudoir - boudoir, from the French verb bouder, to sulk. The boudoir appeared in the 18th century as a small private sitting room off a woman's bedroom where she could be alone or entertain, in private. But you can't escape the negative connotation of the term - a room for sulking and pouting, a room for clichéd female behaviour. Here we reclaim the boudoir as a place of retreat, an intimate space where a woman can find solitude, companionship and the courage to prepare for the role she will play onstage and in life.

There is a big difference between the public and private sphere of a woman. Alone in her boudoir, she can be herself. But step into the public arena and the rules of engagement are still as clear now as they were centuries ago: control your emotions and adorn your body if you want to be accepted.

Women play multiple roles each day, but we seldom acknowledge the routine of preparing for these parts we play; our time in our own personal boudoirs each day. Having distanced ourselves from the world of corsets and long skirts, we have welcomed new forms of constraint: extreme grooming, plastic surgery, personal trainers and skinny jeans.

In order to be taken seriously at work, women are now expected to maintain the level of grooming that was once expected of beauty queens. In an increasingly competitive job market, women have to compete more aggressively with men and with each other; our faces and bodies have become the battleground. For women, grooming is the cost of doing business, the cost of being a woman. In our society, women spend more time and money on their appearance than ever before - women are still 'dressing up' just to participate in everyday life. Botox, fake nails, hair dye and Cross Fit aren't luxuries, they have become necessities for women to compete in a society that still values our looks above all else.

Churchill questions the roles imposed on women, past and present. We've taken it one step further, showing the moment of taking on the role, a conceit of the theatre, as a reminder of the effort required to take on the 'role' of being a woman in the real world.

Song List

Pre Show: "Call Me" by Blondie; "Don't Go" by Yazoo; "Morning Train" by Sheena Easton; "Our Lips Are Sealed" by The Go-Go's; "Don't You Want Me" by Human League; "A New England" by Kirsty MacColl; "Let the Music Play" by Shannon; "I Know There's Something Going On" by Frida. PROLOGUE: "Money" by The Flying Lizards; "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts; "Sweet Dreams" by Eurythmics. INTERMISSION: "They Don't Know" by Tracy Ullman; "The Glamorous Life" by Sheila E.; "Cruel Summer" by Bananarama; "Gloria" by Laura Branigan; "Mickey" by Toni Basil; "Holiday" by Madonna. Curtain Call: "We Got the Beat" by The Go-Go's. POST SHOW: "The Escape Artist" by Ludus.

Top Girls

Classical Theatre In Our Times

Stratford Festival Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino chairs a panel consisting of fellow Artistic Directors Jackie Maxwell (Shaw Festival), Peter Hinton (recently of the National Arts Centre) and others to address the question "Why stage the classics today?". Moderated by Stratford Festival Director of Communications, David Prosser.
This Forum event was recorded in front of a live audience at the Stratford Festival Studio Theatre on Sunday, August 18, 2013.
Jackie Maxwell is in her final season as Shaw's Artistic Director.

Jackie Maxwell (born 1956), theatre director and dramaturge
Maxwell was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. After earning an Honours degree in Drama at the University of Manchester, England, Maxwell accompanied her husband, Benedict Campbell, back to his native Canada, where she began to work as a director at the National Arts Centre. She subsequently became Artistic Director of Factory Theatre in Toronto (1987-95) and Director of New Play Development at the Charlottetown Festival in Prince Edward Island. In 2002, she became Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. She has two daughters, Deragh and Lucy.
Maxwell's extensive list of directed productions including of William Inge's Picnic (2001); Saint Joan (2007), Chekhov's Three Sisters (2003), Marc Michel Bouchard's The Coronation Voyage (2003) and Githa Sowerby's Rutherford and Son (2004), Brief Encounters (2009), Jay Turvey/Paul Sportelli musical Maria Severa (2011).
During her tenure at the Shaw Festival, Maxwell has included pieces by women writers from Shaw's period, commissioned new translations by some of Canada's most respected playwrights, presented Canadian classics on the playbill and initiated enormous growth in the area of new play development.
Jackie Maxwell has been dramaturge and teacher at the Banff Centre for the Arts, York University, George Brown College, Queen's University and the National Theatre School in Montreal. She was also guest artist/lecturer at the Graduate Centre for Study of Drama at the University of Toronto for eight years.
For her services to Canadian theatre, Jackie Maxwell has received the National Theatre School's Gascon-Thomas Award, an honorary degree of Doctor of Humanities from the University of Windsor, and the Herbert Whittaker/Drama Bench Award.

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