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‘Top Girls’ // Ad Astra

‘Top Girls’ was multifaceted.

The price of being a successful career woman is layered with sacrifice. But to what extent does one sacrifice to survive in a man’s world? Ad Astra’s latest production asks this question in staging Caryl Churchill’s highly revered 1982 play ‘Top Girls’.

‘Top Girls’ follows Marline (Aurelie Roque), a successful career woman on the cusp of a promotion at the titular employment agency in 1980s London. She mingles with high-profile women across history, literature and legend at a dinner party, sharing extraordinary experiences with their lives. Subsequently, the play then turns into a case study of what success means to Marline and the ruminating impact of her choices.

Mikayla Hosking’s direction is subtle, subdued and tailor-made in realizing the nuances of Churchill’s text. The blocking and adherence to realist conventions in the beats wisely utilize the venue’s intimate quality. Hosking’s restraint mirrors the cut-throat environment in which the women are submerged in, peppering in little touches of humanity that could easily be neglected within scenes. It is a testament to their adroit capabilities as a director for the production is layered with a tenderness that a lesser director would overlook.

The set design was simple yet effective in highlighting the division between femininity and the corporate world. From the use of desks, drapes and food on stage, the environment created an immersion that tangibly grounded the production and its sensibilities. This was furthered by Rosie Richardson’s sound design, texturing scenes with an artificiality to the action onstage.

Lighting Design from Claire Yorston set the tone well. It knew when to flourish a sense of calm with warm hues across a dinner table and a subtle unease during moments within the office environment. A particular moment of note is when a lone lightbulb gleans over a job interview between candidates, adding to the pressure of the corporate world.

Xanthe Jones’ costume design was notable in symbolically representing the social dynamics at play. Particular attention has been paid to how class and status reflect each character’s wardrobe and place in history; darker buttoned-up formal attire meshing into the agency, lighter colours and t-shirts showing the contrast between worlds. A standout is how attentive the costuming is in depicting the historical figures within the opening Dinner party scene. Each costume appears to capture the essence of each notable achievement while shielding their femininity.

The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. Comprising of mostly double-cast roles, accent work and the layers of Churchill’s text.

Roque plays Marline with an outward icy veneer with deep sadness lodged underneath. Ambitious and high-strung with dashes of vulnerability, the commitment Roque has in justifying Marline’s intentions to the audience is palpable. A truly dynamic performance that anchors the production.

Chelsea Doran was impeccable as both Angie and Dull Gett. Doran possesses a strong stage presence and physicality that, when interacting with the set or fellow performers, is captivating and present. Coupled with sensitivity in both roles, they were the heart of this production.

The range of performers Natasha McDonald and Brigitte Freeme was on full display. Juggling the characters of Isabella Bird, Joyce and Louise, each role allowed McDonald to traverse the complexities of womanhood with nuance and earnestness. The way they hold their own against Roque in the play’s closing moments is magical. Similarly, the chameleonic method in how Freeme tackled Griselda, Janine and Nell demonstrated three different individuals forced to navigate the issues of the workforce and commitment.

Jazz Zhao and Anastasia Benham were dedicated to their performances onstage. In the dual roles of Lady Nijo and Win, Zhao skillfully contrasts the frustration and sacrifice found in each character. Their on-stage chemistry with McDonald is lovely to watch onstage.

A charming Pope Joan and a dutiful Mrs Kidd, Benham was able to texture their roles with subtle physical offers and unwavering service. They presented characters dripping in subtext and dimensionality.

Lastly, Emmy Moore rounds out the cast in the roles of Shona and Kit. Moore’s youthful demeanour adds nicely to both roles, supporting the fellow ensemble members with a rough quality permeating through their interactions.

‘Top Girls’ is a layered production that fully encompasses the complexities of modern Feminism. Hosking and co. have done justice to the text, holding a mirror up to what Feminism and femininity mean in an environment where the underlying issues are ongoing. Overall, Ad Astra’s production is a nuanced piece of theatre that showcases why Churchill’s work is a modern classic.

‘Top Girls’ performs until Saturday, 12 August 2023 at Ad Astra. For more information visit their website.

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