Caryl Churchill has written a huge body of work, and each play differs in both form and content from the previous one, she has continued to write with enormous creative zest and flair well into her maturity. Now in her 80th year, she can look over her shoulder at a back-catalogue which is stuffed full of contemporary classics, and a handful of masterpieces. The National Theatre is currently showing a revival of her 1982 play: Top Girls.
Top Girls is about a woman named Marlene, a career-driven woman who is heavily invested in women’s success in business. The play opens with a dinner party that is staged like an all-female Last Supper in a swanky restaurant, complete with white-booth seating and an imitation impressionist painting in Ian McNeil’s design.
Marlene, the newly appointed managing director of Top Girls employment agency, presides over her guests, topping up their wine glasses (Marlene: “Magnificent all of you. We need some more wine, please, two bottles I think”). Playwright Caryl Churchill shows her most playful side in the first scene, in which Marlene celebrates her promotion not by having drinks with her work colleagues, but by dining in a fantastical dream episode with a group of famous women from history: so we see her chat and eat and drink with Isabella Bird, a Victorian traveller; Lady Nijo, a Japanese courtesan; mythical Pope Joan; Brueghel’s Dull Gret; and Chaucer’s Patient Griselda. The mixture of real and fictional women gives the feminist concerns of this all-female play a richly nuanced historical depth, showing how the problems of women having children, or not, has profound roots in the past.
Lyndsey Turner’s production is probably the first in history to have the resources to not need to double the actors from the party scene with later roles. This is a good thing: it decentralises the party’s role in the play, gives the whole thing room to breathe more, and makes the excellent Katherine Kingsley’s brassy, brittle Marlene more the focus.
The first act is juxtaposed with more naturalistic scenes set at the Top Girls employment agency, (here designer Ian MacNeill’s shiny steel office set is very tight, almost cinematic, pictures the stage) and in Angie and Marlene’s sister Joyce’s home. Katherine Kingsley is excellent as Marlene, a Thatcher fan, ambitious, leaving her humble roots far behind. Here though, she made me consider how much did Marlene really broke through the glass ceiling, what restrictions did she meet? Her child, Angie, has been brought up by her sister, Joyce, and the huge class divide in our society is still profoundly relevant. Liv Hill, making her professional theatre debut here, captures perfectly the teenage angst, yearning, stroppiness and vulnerability of Angie, and she and Lucy Black as Joyce both capture the Suffolk accent perfectly.
Liv Hill perfectly pitches Angie’s combination of vulnerability and naïve cruelty (towards Joyce). When she visits Marlene’s office in London, her need is palpable and awkward, distasteful to the hyper-professional Marlene (Katherine Kingsley), who patronises her. Lucy Black as Joyce sets out the human cost of Marlene’s actions in their final confrontation with a stolid dignity. Kingsley and Black’s performances bring out the irreconcilable political differences, underscored by fierce love, between the sisters. Joyce’s point – that feminism is worthless without socialism.
There is something deeply impressive about seeing row upon row of women take their bows at the end. An excellent production of a classic play and you leave questioning what we value, how far we have come and how far we yet have to go.
Top Girls is on at The National Theatre till 22nd June and can be booked online or through the Box Office.