Zoe Smith

Do you love 80s music and fashion? Are you eager for more surrealist feminist theatre in Cambridge? Have you ever wondered what would happen if a female pope, a Japanese concubine-turned-Buddhist-monk from the thirteenth century, a nineteenth-century Scottish adventurer and a successful working woman from the 80s got together for dinner? Then look no further, as Caryl Churchill’s hit play Top Girls is coming to the ADC Theatre in Cambridge from the 19th-23rd of October.

Last week I met with Director and Cambridge student Molly Taylor to find out what drew her to the play, and why you should almost certainly book a ticket to come and see Top Girls next month.

Q: So Molly, could you please briefly tell our readers what the play Top Girls is about?

Molly: Wow, you’re definitely starting with a really tricky one! So, I would say Top Girls is a play about employment, women in the workplace and, on a wider level, women and their place in the world. It’s sort of about the balancing act that a lot of women play between juggling work and childcare, and the sacrifices that they must make in order to do this. In short, it is about the intergenerational experiences that connect women. The first act is about women across history, the second women in the workplace, and the third is about women who get left at home and, in a way, left behind… So, it’s a nuanced look at the price of female success.

“Each of the acts offer different challenges – in a way it’s like directing three mini-plays”

New HTML Container

Q: What was it about Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls that made you want to direct a version of the play at the ADC?

Molly: Well, Top Girls, I think, is very attractive as a play, especially after having dealt with restrictions, because of the prospect of having such a large cast. The play is full of complex female characters who aren’t always likeable but are all exciting, and the idea of directing such a big group of complex characters was so thrilling to me. In a world where COVID-19 has shrunk theatre down to its very bare essential parts it feels exciting to come back with a massive female-centric play, especially considering what women have gone through during COVID-19, juggling home working and childcare. It’s also a play where each of the acts offer different challenges – in a way it’s like directing three mini-plays! It’s an epic format, and offers a sense of fantastic surrealism, but it is also grounded in real human experiences.

Q: Top Girls originally premiered in 1982; despite the changes that have occurred since then, do you think theatre that discusses gender, and especially women’s place in the workplace is still important today?

Molly: Obviously since the 80s we’ve had a more nuanced discussion about gender – mainstream discussions are no longer purely based on the binary of male/female. But there are still a lot of discussions to be had about women and the multiple roles they often have to juggle, especially when pursuing a career. COVID-19 has exposed the crucial fact that when children are left at home and someone needs to teach them, it is usually women who rise to the task – often our careers are seen as the more disposable ones. The recent joke ‘gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss’ indicates our continued interest in gendered success, especially in the workplace. Marlene (the main character) is a bit of a ‘girlboss’ herself, doggedly pursuing a pretty limited idea of success. Marlene has a very glamorous job, but it becomes apparent that in order to achieve this a lot of people have been left in her wake. Top Girls is a play that shows how success for some people can mean failure for others, and gender often plays a part in how we measure that success.

“Mainstream discussions are no longer purely based on the binary of male/female”

Q: If you had to pick, who would you say is your favourite character in Top Girls?

Molly: Probably my favourite character is either Joyce or Angie – the two family members who Marlene leaves behind in her hometown in order to pursue her career. I really enjoy how Joyce exposes Marlene’s past, delivering a lot of the honest truth. She’s very direct in a play where lots of the characters have been talking in circles. I also think Angie is a devastating character: so lovable and naive, but also completely brutal and totally different from anyone else in the show.

If you’re also asking who I’d most like to play in Top Girls, it would have to be an ‘Act 1 character’, so possibly Pope Joan – a figure from the Middle Ages who disguised herself as a man and became the Pope (reportedly), or Isabella Bird – a nineteenth-century Scottish adventuress and traveller – as they are both such strange parts!

Q: Finally, in Top Girls, the main character Marlene hosts a dinner party and invites five famous/fictional women to join her; if you could have dinner with any five famous women, who would you choose?

Molly: Oh god, five famous women from history! That is difficult. Okay, I’d definitely choose someone from my degree – English – so probably Margery Kempe. She wrote The Book of Margery Kempe; she’s a medieval English writer and a really funny woman. She used to go around ‘wailing’ to God a lot, to the point where her husband used to pretend he didn’t know her. I suspect she’d be quite irritating at a dinner party though, so I’m not sure... Probably also Emma Thompson, I think she’s so cool. Maybe Hannah Gadsby, she’s an Australian comedian who did this amazing stand-up called ‘Nannette’. I would love to have a chat with her; she’s really changed how I view comedy. Also, I’d probably choose Cleopatra who had herself (reportedly) delivered in a rolled-up carpet to Julius Caesar, in order to seduce him and secure her rule. She was so rich; I love her so much. Finally, probably my mum.

Top Girls is on at the ADC Theatre Cambridge from the 15th-23rd of October, you can book tickets here: https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/top-girls/