Paul T Davies reviews Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls now playing at the National Theatre.
3 April 2019
There are few plays that truly become “landmark” texts and productions. First staged in 1982, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is one of those plays, with its incredible first act standing as a supreme example of writing that is intelligent, audacious and original, an inspiration to any writer. Marlene is hosting a dinner party to celebrate her promotion at Top Girls employment agency. Whoever is on your fantasy dinner party list, it won’t be any of Marlene’s choices. She has brought together Isabella Bird, a 19th century explorer, writer, photographer and naturalist, Lady Nijo, Japanese concubine to the Emperor, Dull Gret, famed as the subject of a painting by Bruegal, Pope Joan, who, according to legend, reigned as Pope for a few years during the middle ages, and Patient Griselda, a character from medieval and renaissance Europe, noted for her enduring patience and obedience. As the wine and brandy flow, each woman reveals the losses and sacrifices they made, and Lyndsey Turner’s beautifully acted production opens superbly with his act that lays the foundations for the whole play. In particular, Ashley McGuire is a superb Dull Gret, monosyllabic until her speech describing her battle in Hell, and Amanda Lawrence as Pope Joan, who was torn to pieces by an angry crowd when she gave birth during a parade, her secret tragically revealed.
I’ve always felt that this extraordinary first act is an island, and when we return to the mainland, fixed very much in early 1980s reality, I long to return and find out more about the historical women. I still find it casts a shadow over the rest of the play, and the scene set in the Top Girls agency is a little over long, but this production confirms the play very much as a play for today. Katherine Kingsley is excellent as Marlene, a Thatcher fan, ambitious, leaving her humble roots far behind. Here though, she really 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.
The audience response, a definite murmur of disapproval, to Marlene’s dismissal of Angie as a “packer in Tesco” brings home just how relevant the play is today, with opportunities for women, particularly working class young women, possibly being even more reduced since 1982. The argument between the two sisters is, admittedly, a broad one with Labour values instilled in Joyce arguing against Marlene’s uncaring Toryism, she states she hates the working class. But it’s no broader than the footballisaton, the tribalism of today’s politics. And it’s the quieter lines, the regrets and losses experienced by the entire woman , where the play really thrums with relevance.
The set design by Ian MacNeil captures the themes beautifully. An open sky is the backdrop to the restaurant scene, but it is a false illusion of escape and expanse, and the women are boxed in by low ceilings and harsh lighting in the following acts. Staged for the first time with no doubling of parts, a full company of 18 women perform the play like this possibly for the first time professionally; going some way to balance recent criticism of the National’s summer programme. An excellent production of a classic play.