Top Girls (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Caryl Churchill’s play has always fascinated me, but this is the first stage production I have managed to see, in Lyndsey Turner’s fine revival.

The opening act introduces us to Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) on the eve of her promotion to MD of a recruitment agency; to celebrate, she hosts a dinner in a restaurant with five strong women from the past – Pope Joan, Patient Griselda, Dull Gret, Lady Nijo and Isabella Bird.

All have their own stories to tell about survival in a world that favours men, and in particular about matters relating to love and motherhood.

Act two focuses on young Angie, who is young for her age and who dreams of killing her mum, Joyce, and running away to London to be with her aunty (Marlene).

She runs away and finds herself in the busy agency, where women are discouraged from talking about marriage plans, presented as successful only if they behave like men or are pushy, and where the values of “men first” still find a voice in the wife of the man who lost out on the MD promotion; she feels he should have the job by right as he is a family provider.

Finally, after a curiously placed interval, act three goes back a year to reveal secrets and conflicts between Marlene, her sister Joyce, and young Angie, who are worlds apart in drive, ambition and politics. Marlene epitomises the new Thatcherite woman, each for themselves – “if someone is stupid, lazy or frightened, why should I help them get a job?”. Joyce sees the reality of the woman trapped by cirumstance.

Top Girls should not have contemporary relevance, but it does, and despite those historical figures all women can aspire to, in many ways high achievers like Marlene are still the exception and regarded as suspect.

With a set by Ian McNeil which ranges from a beautifully detailed 80s kitchen and high powered office to a claustrophobic back yard, Top Girls boasts a contemporary soundtrack and some excellent performances from a wide cast which does not rely on Churchill’s traditional doubling-up of roles.

Aside from Kingsley, I particularly enjoyed Amanda Lawrence’s matter-of-fact Pope (“I never lived as a woman”), Lucy Black’s quietly resentful but tough Joyce, Wendy Kweh’s egotistical Nijo, Liv Hill’s damaged Angie, and Amanda Hadingue’s brittle Louise (who seeks a change after 21 years in the same male-dominated office).

So many details leapt out to me – the pursuit of money, the poor families who cooled their milk in a dish of cold water, the disregard for children across time, the battle each woman faces and has always faced for success.

Churchill’s overlapping dialogue and parallels between history and contemporary mores remains clever, and although I might have preferred a more even split between the show before and after the interval, this play retains its quiet power and purpose.

Top Girls continues at the National Theatre. Photo credits: Johan Persson.

2 thoughts on “Top Girls (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

  1. Like you, although I know it extremely well, I’d never seen a stage production of the play before. I do get the impression that – for those who have seen multiple Top Girls – its nobody’s favourite production of the play, and that the vast size of that particular stage does dissipate the effect of the first two acts. It doesn’t really gain anything by being performed by a company of 16, and the first act surely works better with just the one waitress, whom you notice more – and notice how the diners are treating – if she’s doing all the work on her own. Still, the play is still great enough to withstand such setbacks.

    Theatres trying to turn three act plays into two act ones is a constant hobbyhorse of mine! They have that structure for a purpose, and audiences tend to intuitively feel when they’ve been kept in after the bell has gone.

    I found the sound design of ominous rumbles at dramatic points a bit silly. Other than that, though, the production illuminates just what a classic the play is. Seeing it in that National institution reminded me of just how Shavian mid-period Churchill was – the dialectics, sense of musicality in the placing and timing of dialogue, conceptual structure and purposeful, biting, deployment of whimsy.

    1. I think it suffered a bit by dropping the dual casting (Joan/Louise, Gret/Angie etc). I see Lyndsey Turner is directing another Churchill, Far Away, at the Donmar next year.

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