A banner over the door of the theatre quotes a London critic to the effect that this is one of the ten best plays (or, perhaps, British plays) of the century. Not so. It has one of the most brilliant first acts, but the rest of the play is a problematic sequel. My speculation is that Churchill wrote the first act as a self-contained tour de force — it has all the coherence of a one-act play — and then tried to find a way to expand it to full length. It’s not that Marlene’s rise to middle-level executive status at her employment agency, “Top Girls,” and her flight from the squalid, dead-end surroundings of her Ipswich childhood are not relevant or interesting. But this birthday gathering, at a posh London restaurant, of Marlene and five historical characters who share the condition of oppressed womanhood and who, by fits and starts and ostensibly desultory conversation, tell the essence of their story, somehow says it all. Of course, Churchill’s scheme is to contrast the modern condition of women with their traditional plight. Her subject is simultaneously the changes that feminism has wrought in that condition in recent times. And her point — and this is what lends the play whatever unity it possesses — is, effectively, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The seemingly rapid advances in the status of the working woman, represented here by Marlene’s having been promoted over a male co-worker with more years of service and a family to support, are, we are shown, unaccompanied by the personal happiness and self-fulfillment that these advances seemed to promise. To broaden the point and to fix it more securely in the interstices of contemporary life, Churchill gives us Angie, Marlene’s daughter, and Marlene’s sister Joyce, who is rearing Angie as her own child. Clearly, Joyce will never emerge out of the doldrums of provincial life. And Angie, who idolizes her “Auntie” Marlene and who pays Marlene an unannounced visit in her Top Girls office, will also, as Marlene observes in the last line of that scene, “not make it.”
Thus we are given three versions in all of “not making it,” and so here we are back with Pope Joan, Lady Nijo, and the rest of history’s female casualties. It feels like anticlimax. Well, maybe that’s really what Churchill had in mind; but it’s tough to make anticlimax dramatically interesting, whether it occurs in the briskly hostile climate of Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain, as this play does, or not.
The director of this production, Thea Sharrock, and the designer, Rachel Blues, have made some effort to resist this sense of been-there, done-that with a design that is partly wonderful and partly apologetic. The wonderful part is the idea of staging the Act I restaurant scene on a revolve that moves very, very slowly (taking exactly four minutes for a full revolution — I timed it). The revolve starts up once all the guests except Patient Griselda have arrived; it stops, suddenly and with great effect, when Joan announces that she was stoned to death. There is a deathly silence, and the full effect of man’s injustice to woman occurs. The moving revolve, meanwhile, allows us to see each of these six characters in full dimension, full face, in profile, and from the back. This is a wonderful solution to the always embarrassing problem of an on-stage eating scene, whether the table is round, as here, or oblong. Add to this Churchill’s calculated overlapping of dialogue, and we get an impressive sense of the reality of this quite literally impossible reunion of five stellar examples of a woefully imperfect world.
The apologetic thing was the huge, monolith up stage left, slanted at an angle and seemingly buried in the stage floor. It seemed to be hewn roughly out of solid rock. In its upper center was a circular cut-out space, used in the second act for the scene between Angie and her friend in the backyard. It reverted to empty space again for the last act. What did this mean? I thought fleetingly of Stonehenge, but that didn’t seem to help. Then I thought that the circle cut out of stone formed an analogy to the circle of the table and its concentric revolving stage. Was that intended to tie in the scene with Angie and friend to the opening scene? We do have here, of course, an all-female play (destined to be performed at women’s colleges, the way Clare Booth Luce’s The Women used to be; I saw this play first in a student production at Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s school, and part of Churchill’s plan is to show us women at various stages of development. The trouble here is that the play was not really written for a West End theatre with a large, well-equipped stage, but for smaller, more make-shift spaces, perhaps for theatre in the round, where the proximity of the audience to the action obviates the necessity for the “equal exposure” conferred by the presence of a revolve in the stage floor and the need to do something — something, anything — with that otherwise useless, cavernous upstage area. This is a play for the old Royal Court or a theatre in the Fringe, not for the proscenium stage of the Aldwych and the inevitable distancing effect produced by that formidable barrier.
And the play, presented here in a twentieth anniversary production, doesn’t quite ring true. Twenty years ago the scene between Marlene and Mrs Kidd, the wife of the man who has been passed over for promotion, would have had the force of novelty, punctuated by the wife’s insistence on the cruelty of his having been slighted — because “he is a man.” She accuses Marlene of being a “ball-breaker.” Those sentiments, in 1982, formed part of the cry to arms of the militant feminists of the time. What it left behind them, and leaves behind here and now, is the plight of the woman who, like Mrs Kidd, has “always put my husband first.” Much depends on whether Mrs Kidd is played as a caricature of a person whose claims have no longer any validity or as a woman painfully caught up in profound social changes of which she has no understanding. I believe Churchill’s Mrs Kidd could be played in the latter way and so would add a dimension of compassion and complexity to a play that verges dangerously on stereotype. The ending of the play, in which Angie, awakened from sleep by a bad dream, is a crucial counter in this emotional equation. “Oh,” says Marlene somewhat unfeelingly, “did you have a bad dream?” “I’m frightened,” Angie says, hugging herself. “I’m frightened.” Angie’s true mother has distanced herself so far from the needs of her daughter that she cannot commiserate with Angie — nor can she acknowledge that she, too, is frightened. This is existential fear, dread of the unknown. Churchill uncovers that here, and one senses that the long scene between the two children is meant partly to prepare the ground for this. But the common plight of female humanity that is ultimately Churchill’s subject loses some of its depth and resonance if the actress playing Mrs Kidd is directed, or at least allowed, as in this production, to make the character into a laughingstock. Uncomfortable laughter here and there across the auditorium suggested that this was what Mrs Kidd was — was all that she was — and that there was in this some cause for embarrassment.
Churchill is an accomplished writer, with a voice all her own, and she is famously unafraid of tough subjects. She brings to them what might be described as a steely sort of resolve, a tonality that rings with the distanced perspicacity of the satirist (as she demonstrated in the play that first brought her to wide public attention, Cloud 9). But the risks of that long vantage point are intermittently evident in the kind of issue raised by this seemingly minor, insignificant character of Mrs Kidd.