Shalom Life | September 23, 2015

Shaw Festival Review: Top Girls

Although 'Top Girls' was originally written as a treatise on Feminism, the themes now speak to the 99% whose lives have become subverted by the whims and interests of a global elite.

By: Hermine Steinberg

Published: July 3rd, 2015 in Culture » Stage » Reviews

Shaw Festival Review: Top Girls

I always look forward to the plays featured at The Courthouse Theater during the Shaw Festival. The theatre provides an intimate setting and the playwrights are usually less known to the mainstream theater goer. Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls was written in 1982 and takes place during Margaret Thatcher’s conservative rule in England. Although it was originally written as a treatise on Feminism; the sacrifices and the roles women must play to succeed or even survive in a patriarchal world, its themes now speak to the 99% whose lives have become subverted by the whims and interests of a global elite.

The ensemble of Top Girls is made up of some of The Shaw Festival’s most talented female actors. These exceptional women gather on a set made up of lockers and dressing tables, preparing themselves to take on the roles of women from the past that were also extraordinary in their day. The opening dinner scene is interesting, sometimes confusing, but clearly makes its point. Each woman needed to transform herself, take risks, and suffer loss to obtain respect and achieve any status in her time period. The party is being hosted by Marlene (Fione Byrne) who is celebrating her promotion to Managing Director of the Top Girls Employment Agency. This sets us up for the story of Marlene and the other women in her life who are trying to live up to the roles, expectations, and values they have accepted – and somehow still find happiness.

To be honest, the first half of the production left me wondering where this play was really going and whether it would prove to be a bit dated and pedantic. However, after intermission, when the story really began to unfold and delve into the lives of Marlene, Angie, and Joyce, I was drawn into this socio-political drama about difficult choices and limited lives. Although it focused on issues often associated with women, the themes that were explored are universal - especially in the 21st century when extreme materialism, economic hardship and exploitation, and technology come together to acutely pressure us to play multiple roles (often conflicting) in order to survive emotionally, financially, and socially.

But in truth, what makes Top Girls worth paying admission for is the masterful acting, each woman exquisitely bringing to life the pain, joy, and sorrow of the characters that together paint a complex picture of lives intertwined and all effected by their desire to find meaning and joy in a world where they really have little control.

Fiona Byrne leads the pack as Marlene, the ambitioius and pragmatic executive who refuses to be held back by sentiment or obligation. She brings a depth and intensity to this role that allows us to see Marlene as vulnerable and fearful. Claire Jullien and Catherine McGregor play her colleagues, fiesty and worldly women who value financial independence but seek human connection. We all know these women and many of us can relate to the balancing act they are trying to achieve. Their portrayals are realistic and empathetic. In the dinner scene in the first act, Jullien is Pope Joan and McGregor plays Isabella Bird. Their performances are captivating.

Julia Course and Tess Benger play two girls who form a desperate and needy relationship. Julia is the older of the two and has discovered that her birth mother is actually her aunt, Marlene. Course’s noteworthy performance as the disturbed Angie is riveting. She also is breathtaking as Lady Nijo in the opening scene.

Tara Rosling, both as Griselda in the dinner scene and then as Marlene’s sister, Joyce, is dazzling. She is able to create compelling multi-layered, conflicted characters with both nuance and strength that is truly impressive.

Vikki Anderson successfully brings together this powerhouse ensemble to direct a stirring play that will make you feel like you need a drink and a conversation - for me, two excellent gauges that a play is worth seeing. Luckily, when you exit the Courthouse Theater, you are steps away from a number of great establishments where you can sit on the patio, enjoy a wonderful meal or snack, and try one of Niagara-on-the-lake’s award winning wines.


Hermine Steinberg is a young adult/children’s author and high school teacher living in Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her novel, The Co-Walkers: Awakening, is now available. For more information, visit www.cowalkers.com.

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