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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Lyndsey Turner directs this revival and doubles the cast. Ian McNeil’s equally discrete sets with Jack Knowles’ lighting. Costume designer Merle Hensel signals that before shoulder-pads colour tells us everything. Christopher Shutt’s sound is the noise of time around Cassie Kinoshi’s suggestive score. Till July 20th.


When Dull Gret finally grabs the bread basket to find it empty, you know intimacy’s not lost in this bigged-up revival of one of the greatest plays since 1945.


The opening dinner party scene, where Top Girls CEO Marlene invites five women from history to share her promotion, still tips devastation to exquisitely paced laughter. And the final, very different scene is overwhelming.


This study of what it costs women to assert anything, let alone thrive is riven with bitter paradox. Late on Marlene invokes Margaret Thatcher’s example castigating the poor and helpless – startlingly apposite nearly forty years on. But that’s too close for Marlene, who let an older sister stay behind and take responsibility for Marlene’s actions.


It’s epic again. So when director Lyndsey Turner more than doubles the cast of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 Top Girls from seven to 16 and two ensemble, she echoes what she did with Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire – also at the Lyttelton – in 2015. There six was tripled to 18, with a community cast of 44.


Churchill notes the small cast of Top Girls was ‘practical rather than meaningful’. Each of the 16 characters is discrete, spread through four scenes: so the common thread – agency boss Marlene, 16-year-old Angie – is pressed on more urgently. Fortunately Katherine Kingsley and Liv Hill – unbelievably making her stage debut – give pin-drop performances.


Ian McNeil’s four equally discrete sets with Jack Knowles’ lighting vector from dark-hued restaurant corner and table gleaming with 1980s slick, wine and food, through a flight of concrete sets half obscured with junk, starkly lit: like keyhole surgery in the Lyttelton’s fabric. Then the blue-chrome-and-grey plush of Top Girls’ wide-open-plan office, prototype of many. Finally, on the scale of the opening set, a Norfolk farmhouse kitchen, with grubby off-white units, a sofa stage-right and strewn gifts of a surprise visit. From Gret’s breastplate through Isabella’s Victoriana and Joan’s purple popery, Marlene’s turquoise is just shades off blue. Her sister Joyce wears red for a reason. Costume designer Merle Hensel signals that before shoulder-pads colour tells us everything. Christopher Shutt’s sound is the noise of time around Cassie Kinoshi’s suggestive score.


A counter-1980s kicked off in that great restaurant scene with its pioneering dialogue overlaps. It’s one in which Siobhan Redmond’s memorable Victorian traveller Isabella Bird sails vocally over the others’ heads in blue-serge recollections of how she transcended her wracked body. It’s a performance of insouciant entitlement struck with pangs of regret. Amanda Lawrence’s Pope Joan balances ready pontification – you might say she was born to it – with Latin saws and argufying; till she vomits too much wine with cannelloni. She stands to the right of the party, as if preaching from steps.


Opposite her Wendy Kweh’s Lady Nijo (‘I’m not a cheerful person, Marlene, I just laugh a lot’) holds her own with ingenious ways of evading pregnancy detection, sidestepping not evading the patriarchy she accepts in 13th century Japan. Something Joan didn’t manage, giving birth in a side-street. Lucy Ellinson’s late-arriving Patient Griselda is an initially ungrateful role but gets the most gasps. Accepting her lord’s apparent (and real) cruelty as unblinkingly as Nijo, unlike her she’s wholly obedient. ‘He suffered so much’ Griselda offers. Even Marlene steals Griselda’s punch-line (neatly brought out here). You feel she’s been selected as a control in an experiment, yet Ellinson invests her with some warmth.


Ashley McGuire’s Dull Gret drops words like potatoes, like potatoes; till her monologue, harrowing a Breughel-like hell, which is where she’s depicted. As the party lurches through alcohol veneers of bonding crumble. Loss rises as the women stagger.


Hill makes her appearance as ‘remedial’ Angie, at 16 leaving school, in a clash of purple and green. Cajoling and torturing clever twelve-year-old friend Kit (Ashna Rabheru) you see Angie’s neediness in a faultless depiction of children playing in the shadow of the bomb. Hill’s awkwardness is mesmerising. When Lucy Black’s mother Joyce tells Kit (whose ambition is to be a nuclear physicist) Angie’s ‘clever in her own way’ you hope a sliver of it’s true.


The office scene – two are elided seamlessly – describes a slow arc with rapid cross-currents. So Nadia Williams’ exuberant Nell badinages with Charlotte Lucas’ Win over the latter’s sex-life, morphs to Nell interviewing chancer Shona (Jessica Brindle) whose lies become so comical as to garner this scene’s best laughs. Naomi Yang’s frustrated Jeanine provides a glimpse of Marlene actually at her job, hard-selling compromise, here left ambivalent.


But it’s darker questions posed by older women and Angie’s arrival that anchor it. Amanda Hadingue’s waited too long to make her move, investing this with a desperate dignity. What should be climactic, Roisin Rae’s cornered Mrs Kidd, is muted in the open-plan: her jaw-dropping plea to Marlene not to take promotion since it makes her husband ill. We still cheer then flinch at Marlene’s diplomatic then acid put-downs.


Throughout Marlene’s been managing Angie’s clingy arrival, her need to connect with someone she’s told Kit is her mother. Marlene’s devastating comments to staff about Angie’s chances resonate in the final scene set a year earlier but travelling emotionally forward.


Despite the opening scene’s virtuosity, often detachable, it’s this scene with more overlapping talk that resolves the future.


Marlene arrives fairy-godmother-like to Joyce’s surprise (Angie’s shaft of cunning) Angie’s delight in a dress and pungent perfume contrasts with Joyce’s increasing fury, boiling over when Angie’s put to bed.


Marlene’s confronted with Black’s viscerally seething Joyce, a woman who took on family and a sister’s child with the bitter truth of someone who knows her worth.


It’s Kingsley’s Marlene whose voice thrilling registers the chasm – her abandoned Norfolk burr reanimated then stridently overridden in her paean to Maggie. All three actors make this the high-point.


In hyper-naturalistic overlap Churchill lays out key dilemmas of success ‘the eighties are going to be stupendous’, against one who chose responsibility, sacrificing prospects for the one now scornfully paraded. As for the ‘lazy, stupid or frightened’ Joyce’s answer is capped by Angie later woken from a dream with the last word: ‘Frightening’. In such a production, even with a few points muffled, it doesn’t get much better than this.