Topp Class is an all-star tribute to Aotearoa’s legendary Topp Twins

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A lineup of Aotearoa’s top musicians and comedians celebrate the one and only Topp Twins in Topp Class – streaming on Neon. Steve Newall’s only regret in watching the special was not being there to experience it in person.

For forty years, Dames Lynda and Jools Topp have carved an indelible impression on our nation’s culture, something that Topp Class valiantly attempts to convey in just one night at Auckland’s Civic Theatre. Wisely deciding not to sum up forty years’ worth of music and comedy in just one evening, the show is much more celebration than history lesson, which feels aligned with the twins’ own inclination to put smiles on Kiwis’ faces as much as possible.

Of course, in the background to proceedings is the breast cancer both Topps have been battling (with Jools telling Stuff recently “I’m on my last lot of choices that I can have now before there are no more”). But this show is about their infectious creativity, and the roll call of performers who take part is a testament to the foundational fun the twins have provided to Aotearoa.

Hosted by Wellington Paranormal’s Karen O’Leary—who acknowledges how Lynda and Jools paved the way for her and so many others—Topp Class sees the likes of Tami Neilson, Troy Kingi, Anika Moa, Te Radar and plenty more perform to a full house at the majestic Civic. Many performers take the opportunity to directly acknowledge the Topps, who appropriately take in the show in their honour from the royal box. Lest you think this is some Statler and Waldorf situation, they’re no embittered muppets, instead dancing and singing along in the playful manner that’s been a career hallmark.

As O’Leary observes in her opening, the twins have been singing and making us laugh through some of the most important moments over the last 40 years in Aotearoa: “whether that was the Springbok Tour, the land rights protests or just hanging out with your whanau watching Camp Leader and Camp Mother on the telly”. On the topic of the Topps’ barrier-breaking, unifying career, O’Leary accurately notes “we’ve been able to watch two women who speak like we do and talk about things in a way we Kiwis understand”.

The Topp Twins’ international adventures and success is noted at several points in the show, which counts Canadian-born Tami Neilson among its early performers. After singing Big Boss Mama she reflects on her first Topp encounter—seeing someone on the lawn of a big, beautiful theatre, taking care of her baby calf. Jools waved and Neilson recalls thinking “these are the New Zealand country music awards, this is how it goes.”

Neilson shares another memory from that night of Jools winning an award and saying that when the music industry looks at twin lesbian sisters who do comedy and sing country music, they don’t exactly scream “let’s sign them!” As Neilson recalls: “Jools said when a door opens for you, even a little crack, you push that thing wide open and you hold it for others to come through behind you. And that is exactly what those girls have done, their whole careers. They did it for me, as a new Canadian girl on the block. They shared their audiences with me on many tours. And they taught me that, when you’re an outsider and not offered a seat at the table—you build your own damn table.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern beams in to have her own reminiscence, of buying a rundown caravan on TradeMe sight unseen, “believing that I could take on a little DIY project”. It turned out not just to have once been the Topps’, but in actuality their iconic Camp Leader and Camp Mother caravan. The Prime Minister says that when she realised, she felt a duty of care to restore it back to its old self so that this piece of history was preserved.

“And that’s because it was associated with two of New Zealand’s greatest ever performers,” Ardern says. “Jools and Lynda Topp, you are icons—but you’re not just icons because of the joy you’ve brought Aotearoa New Zealand, but because you’ve stood alongside us in our times of greatest need”. As the PM observes, somehow they managed to “transcend regional, rural, provincial boundaries—you bring people together from all walks of life”.

And not without a streak of silliness, as Te Radar notes while delivering a Powerpoint presentation (“the most Pākehā thing you will hear this evening”) on their Huntly origins and other assorted bits and pieces from the Topps’ career. Among Te Radar’s discoveries, an April 1985 Rip It Up readers poll, in which they are “the only women to make the list in the readers poll of best vocalist”—behind Fagan, Dobbyn, Luck et al.

That silliness manifests in Topp Class with the sight of the Topps’ beloved Camp Leader and Camp Mother taking the Civic stage. Tom Sainsbury and Chris Parker do their damnedest as the duo, bemoaning the new generation of comedians who spend 15 minutes filming videos in their lounge, and get a lot of likes but not person-to-person contact. And they also offer the audience sausages on bread, with a bit of onion and tomato sauce, even while acknowledging that “I think there’s a fair few women in the audience tonight who don’t like sausages”. Their tribute looks like it goes down a treat with the Topps.

The Topps’ music gets some memorable covers throughout the evening. Troy Kingi and Anika Moa duet on Milestones (preceded by a typically-gumbooted Kingi asking Moa “Where’s your shoes?” and being told “Oh I forgot them”). Don McGlashan sings Palomino Moon and Friday Night Get Up becomes a drag party thanks to Buckwheat, Vanessa La Roux, Shavorn Aborealis Medulla Oblongata, Nikita Iman and Hugo Grrrl.

Don McGlashan’s own iconic Kiwi duo The Front Lawn hasn’t played for 31 years, but he reunites with Harry Sinclair for a rendition of I’ll Never Have Anything More, with Sinclair noting the last time they performed on stage was 1991 in a double bill with the Topp Twins. McGlashan captures the mood of the night, saying “the Topps show us, and they’ve always showed us, that you can be totally committed to being an artist in Aotearoa. You can be funny, you can be political, and you can speak from the heart and they’ve always done that with a huge amount of love.”

Fittingly, Jools and Lynda take the stage themselves a couple of times, first joining Anika Moa, Troy Kingi and Dame Hinewehi Mohi for a rousing Ngā Iwi E, accompanied by video and stills that locates the Topps amid Aotearoa’s protest movements of the 80s—the fight to stop Apartheid-era rugby tours, to ban nuclear weapons, and stand up for Māori rights and gay rights.

By the time the show closes with the Topp Twins leading the whole cast of performers in Untouchable Girls, a song synonymous with the Topps, you’ll have been swept away with a sense of joyful celebration. You shoulda been there—so should I—but this is still a special watch indeed.