Minerva Studio, Chichester, W. Sussex
Opened 30 June, 2011

Caryl Churchill's 1982 play is most notable for its audacious first act, in which protagonist Marlene celebrates her promotion to MD of her employment agency by throwing a dinner party in a swish restaurant, at which the guests are extraordinary women from history, art or myth, including Victorian traveller Isabella Bird, Pope Joan and (arriving fashionably late) the Patient Griselda. There is no mystical gubbins; these half-dozen women simply eat and chat (as Brueghel's Dull Gret' empties bread rolls from the table into her basket), each about her own preoccupations but bantering with and talking over each other entirely naturally. We see the achievement of each in her historical or cultural context, but the setting also makes us think, how far we've come since then!... and again, more uncertainly: how far have we come?
Max Stafford-Clark's excellent revival, coming as it does 29 years after he directed its première at the Royal Court, adds a further dimension to the question. Most of the philosophical struggles of feminism have been won in western culture, but there often remains a yawning gap between theory and practice, and the concept of "post-feminism" can dignify a sneaky reactionism. Churchill, and indeed the Eighties themselves, give form to this debate in Acts Two and Three, showing us Marlene's work life and distant, fractious relationship with her sister who has brought up Marlene's daughter as her own in rural Suffolk. It is not simply the mandatory contretemps about Thatcher (at once an icon and a travesty of feminism), but the dilemmas around the idea of "having it all"... or indeed having any of it to speak of. Years before that label was popularised, it was already apparent that combinations and conflicts of professional and personal aspirations could lead to complications of gender-agenda.
Suranne Jones as Marlene rightly refuses to play for our empathy; her spiky duologues with Stella Gonet as the wife of a colleague and then as Marlene's sister are uncomfortable in the best ways. Olivia Poulet doubles well as Dull Gret' and Marlene's slightly simple daughter Angie, and Stafford-Clark smartly delineates the ’80s period by incidental use of several of the era's more pointed songs including "A Town Called Malice", "Too Much Too Young" and, implicitly raising that core question again right at the end, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)".

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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