National Theatre (venue)
08 April 2019 (released)
10 April 2019
Top Girls, the seminal 1982 play that made Carol Churchill’s name proves itself to be bold and unsettling nearly forty years after its conception. Whilst it’s gender politics and critique of Thatcher’s capitalism feel timely, what is most compelling is its challenging theatrical form and the huge cast of powerful female characters who defy audience expectations.
For the first time ever, it has been produced with a cast of 18 women as it was written, (without actors doubling up) and the result is to emphasise what a daring act of theatre this was and still is. It also has the less desirable affect of reducing the visibility of the resonances between the many characters. The famous opening Act is as extraordinary as ever. Feisty, upbeat Marlene dressed in eighties splendour celebrates her work promotion by hosting a dinner party for five legendary women who arrive in all their comic diversity, ready to drink, laugh and tell stories of their lives as if this was a perfectly normal evening out. They include Lady Nijo, a thirteenth century concubine, Pope Joan who was stoned to death when they discovered she was a woman and Patient Griselda whose husband took her children away to prove her love to him.
After such an epic first Act, it feels like an uncomfortable descent to a dingy Suffolk basement where two teenage girls, Kit and Angie vie for power - a fascinating and unsettling scene. When Act 3 takes us into in a sleek 80’s employment agency in London, it’s not immediately obvious how all these scenes relate. This is a play that ripples with interwoven threads but it can take some work to grasp them, often being more thematic than narrative. The interplay between women’s ambition to succeed in society and their desperate need to escape it, the inescapable pain of having children and the inevitability of losing them are explored throughout. More astonishing at the time it was written, and still unusual, there are no male characters and those referred to are either ignorant or brutal.
Though there are numerous outstanding performances, the relationship between career woman, Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) and her country sister Joyce (Lucy Black) is rich with nuance and makes for a much more accessible final Act. As the narrative suddenly falls into place, Churchill’s play takes a direct political turn in which Joyce proves herself to be as much a Top Girl as her high powered sister. Churchill’s masterpiece has not dated, partly because it’s so clearly set in the Thatcher context and partly because the first act reaches back to women across history. It’s not too hard to imagine a woman of our times joining them at the table…