In many ways, “Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill offers a good example of how to move a play to the small screen, but the play’s humor has not survived the transfer. Still, if one can endure the first half of the show, many riches can be gained in the second.
The dialectic examines the plights and drives of a high-profile, ruthless executive, Marlene (Lesley Manville), against those of other women, past and present.
After Marlene snags a major promotion at the top-notch Top Girls employment agency, she throws a fantasy party for herself.
In attendance are Pope Joan (Cecily Hobbs), the only female Pope ever (854- 856 A.D.)–she had been mistaken as a man; Isabella Bird (Deborah Findlay), a Scottish Victorian traveler; Lady Nijo (Sarah Lam) from Japan, an emperor’s concubine and Buddhist nun from the 13th century; Dull Gret (Lesley Sharp) from Brueghel’s painting; and Patient Griselda (Anna Patrick), an obedient wife whose story is told in “The Canterbury Tales.”
To make her point more pronounced, writer Churchill (“Cloud 9”) comes back to 1980 to show yet another angle: While the historical figures never return, the actresses who played them now take on the contemporary roles.
Marlene’s thick-witted teenage niece (Sharp) runs to the big city to stay with Marlene; the story then jumps back one year, to a powerful scene when Marlene visits her sister (Findlay) and niece after a six-year absence.
The playwright and director Max Stafford-Clark overlay the dinner-party conversations one atop another so that the viewer struggles to hold on and not miss Something Important.
The next scene, with the niece and her friend, dawdles, perhaps because it’s shot and played so realistically. Many people may wonder why the scene exists, especially in relation to the dinner party, but with patience comes payoff.
The cast could not be better. Manville and Findlay particularly command the work in their scene at the end, an emotional boxing match.
Technical aspects also rate high, with fine photography by John Vincent, costumes by Pam Tait and lighting by Clive Thomas.