Dynamic, challenging, and true to the text, Rocket Theatre’s production of Top Girls is a justice to the difficulties of class, gender, and family in Thatcherite England. Co-directors Alvi Lindborg-Koh and Maariya Khalid and their cast effectively bring the audience through the tensions of politics and home, of dominance and failure, in a production that is unique.
Set in 1980s England, Top Girls follows Marlene (Bethan Avery), a career-driven woman who has sacrificed everything for her success. The play starts with an episode of women in history having dinner together – a difficult-to-stage act that the production executes excellently with dramatic and comedic ease – and the rest of the play follows Marlene’s family: Joyce (Zara Stokes-Neustadt) and Angie (Esmé Lane), who represent the abandoned populations of Thatcher’s England.
Although the setting is minimal, the set designer (Abdullah Lutfi) provides a great basis for the tensions of the family to be the real focus of the production, as the simple sofas and desks suit different interactions and tones that are helped further by lighting. The use of props and costuming also supports dynamics in the text: one of my favourite soft but emotionally distinct directorial choices was how Kitt (Iqra Khadiza) fruitlessly reties Angie’s shoelaces. The set, lighting and costume work fantastically in conjunction with the acting to create a real sense of a complete production.
The first act lends itself wonderfully to the strengths of individual actors – Avery as Marlene is both harsh and comedically sound in her delivery of quick one-liners that, against the overwhelming discussion between the ‘Women of History’, are impactful. Lady Nijo (Khaliun Mark) is terrific, supporting a duality of comedic timing and emotional labour: her response to Marlene’s ask ‘but don’t you get angry’/‘but what about?’ was delivered with striking poignancy. Pope Joan’s (Sylvie Norman-Taylor) presence on stage is one of comfortable physical acting that never feels overbearing and works in conjunction with great comedic timing and a real understanding of character, something developed later in her amusing act of ‘Top Girl’ Win.
Isabella (Molly Bell) is a frustrating but well-delivered figure who contributes effectively to the sense of ‘overwhelm’ that the dinner scene imposes. Gret (Ellie Mather) works in complete opposition to that sense of ‘overwhelm’ with a silent but hilarious performance that eventually accumulates in an outburst that only emphasises Mather’s range, later strengthened by the independent but very sound performance of Nell. And although arriving late, Griselda (Rigel Cian) provides a carefully reserved but emotionally challenging performance also found in the character of Mrs Kidd. Even though some actors confuse lines, co-directors Alvi Lindborg-Koh and Maariya Khalid are able, with difficult material, to produce a play that feels alive and dynamic, one that stays with the audience long after it ends.
As the play progresses this strength of acting is only multiplied by the sensitivity of representing family issues and the fact that the actors themselves double up on roles. Angie and Kitt’s first scene is easily one of the best in the show, as both actors truly encapsulate the essence of a friendship between girls that is inherently unstable and vulnerable. Esmé Lane as Angie is impressive throughout the play in her physical acting, as her constant movements and unsettled nature subtly show her character to be a troubled youth. The family scenes with Joyce and Marlene were perhaps the crux of what made the production so great – there was a careful tension between anger and care that produced a real feeling of family between the two actors.
Overall, although there was some mistiming with the delivery of lines, Rocket Theatre’s production of Top Girls is sensitively and artfully formed, and one of the best productions that I have seen in Durham. It was a play that directly interacted with the audience on personal levels – whether you see yourself in the family tensions of Joyce and Marlene, or in the hard to come to terms with the trauma of Lady Nijo — this is a production that is striking.
Image credit: Rocket Theatre Company