The idea of a power dinner with some of history’s (and today’s) greatest minds has always been a fantasy of mine. Every so often I will add someone else to my list of invitees or when someone more intriguing comes along I will even replace one of my other guests. I know that this recurring fantasy will never really play out for me unless I do what playwright Caryl Churchill has does in the first scene of Top Girls, currently on stage at the Vancouver Playhouse, and make it come to life on stage.
Churchill’s rolodex is a surprising mix of fantasy and reality but with a common theme of powerful women who variously break through their own glass ceilings: Isabella Bird (Jillian Fargey), a world-traveler from the Victorian era; Lady Nijo (Manami Hara), a 13th century Japanese courtesan turned Buddhist nun; Pope Joan (Linda Quibell), a female pope from the Middle Ages; Dull Gret (Meg Roe) a peasant warrior come to life from a 14th century Flemish painting; and Patient Griselda (Megan Leitch) who steps from the pages of Perrault and Chaucer. These five women join Marlene (Jennifer Clement) for a dinner to celebrate her ascension to the top as Managing Director of the Top Girls employment agency.
Glynis Leyshon, returning to the Playhouse as Director this time round, embodies this group of women with some very subtle and clever mannerisms including Lady Nijo’s precise drinking style and watching Pope Joan eat her biscuit during the “pudding” course was inspired. Unfortunately though, Leyshon allows Roe’s Gret to become a comedic focus for much of the scene which quickly became just downright annoying as we attempt to listen in on the conversations that are happening around the table. The fact that the characters are permitted to over-talk each other and with a number of conversations going on at the same time, there is little room for error in the timing here and one has to wonder how this issue was not resolved in previews.
From this opening scene, the play moves from fantasy to reality. In the next four scenes (the show runs a total 2 hour 45 minutes with intermission) Churchill explores deeper into Marlene’s rise to the top of the employment agency and the sacrifices and choices that she, and the other women around her, have endured or made for themselves.
Not surprisingly, the actresses play double-duty taking on the various roles of the contemporary supporting characters. I was hoping for some correlation between the women’s characters in the fantasy dinner scene to these other roles but that was not to be – but beyond some of the broad themes explored it was as if Churchill simply segregated the first scene from the rest of the play which in my opinion was a real opportunity lost.
The fact that the rest of Churchill’s play does not live up to the potential of the first scene is not the fault of the production but simply a result of the impact that the first scene has on the audience (despite the comedic annoyance). I found myself wanting more from these women at the dinner table than trying to relate to them as women of the 80s. In the end, I simply could not connect with the contemporaries.
Pam Johnson’s set design sufficiently conjures up the 80s right down to the black lacquer chairs at the dinner table. The use of the large doors at the rear of the stage where the women enter for dinner was an interesting choice although it worked better during this fantasy dinner scene, complete with its other-worldly lighting effects, than in the rest of the show.
Costume designer Sheila White must have been jumping with glee at the prospect of simultaneously dressing these women in their historic garb and in the excesses of their 80s dress. For the most part it works, although one must wonder if the laughter at some of the 80s costumes was intentional or appropriate.
In the end, one cannot help but think perhaps Top Girls should really have been two plays. The potential strength of the first scene’s dinner party simply does not match what follows. While this fine cast of women do what they can with the bulk of the show, it is only the first half hour that truly is tops.
Top Girls continues at the Vancouver Playhouse through May 30th. Visit http://www.vancouverplayhouse.com for tickets and information.