Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls:
It was 1982, a society in the throes of Thatcherism, when Caryl Churchill’s groundbreaking feminist tour-de-force ‘Top Girls’ first played at the Royal Court Theatre, with just seven actors taking on multiple roles. Thirty-seven years later this iconic play opens at the National Theatre on the Lyttelton ’s sweeping stage. Lindsey Turner’s laser-sharp production boasts a remarkable cast of 18 women. Somehow, regardless of the very 80’s feel and the decades having slipping by, this story of a woman’s quest to climb the career ladder in a male-dominated world – and the sacrifices she has had to make – still fiercely resonates.
The opening scene is almost a play within itself; it’s artful, surreal and very funny indeed. Go-getting career woman Marlene (played with cool poise by Katherine Kingsley) is hosting a dinner party in a slick 80’s style basement restaurant (credit to designers Ian McNeil and Jack Knowles), celebrating her recent job promotion to Managing Director of Top Girls employment agency. Sleek tables, discreet waitresses, and soft lighting set the scene, and six women awash with bottles of Frascati snack on avocado vinaigrette and cannelloni.
Marlene’s five guests are certainly no ordinary dinner party. Each one is a great historical figure, and all have a desire to tell their tales of rebellion and forfeit, sacrifices made and losses endured as a result of their relationships with men. Siobhan Redmond makes an excellent Isabella Bird, a childless Victorian explorer, and Amanda Lawrence’s hilarious Pope Joan was a real triumph. There’s a Japanese concubine – Lady Nijo (Wendy Kweh) and Patient Griselda (Lucy Ellinson). I very much enjoyed Ashley McGuire’s amusing portrayal of Dull Gret (the ‘Mad Meg’ of Brueghel’s painting). As the wine flows the women bay for attention, often overlapping each other, the dialogue masterfully interwoven by Churchill’s rich locution.
Scene Two cleverly transports the audience to a more naturalistic setting in a cottage in Suffolk, the home of Marlene’s humble sister Joyce (here done great justice by Lucy Black’s tremendous performance) who has stayed at home to look after Angie (Marlene’s niece) – who we actually discover is Marlene’s daughter – played with a wonderful clumsy innocence and torment by newcomer Liv Hill.
The narrative moves to and fro, between Top Girls’ polished offices and the kitchen sink in Suffolk. Office life is fast-paced and brutally uncompromising, as demonstrated by Marlene’s brusque approach to the wife of the man she has succeeded, who comes to the office to plead his case.
The scene switching can be confusing at times, but what transpires is a story with real heart. The final scene is utter genius as the bitter resentments build between the sisters and the depth of the social chasm is brought to light. Marlene’s vulnerability and the life she’s left behind are juxtaposed against a glamorous cutthroat world of women-in-power, fighting for individualism in a very male world. As the cost of her success is revealed, there emerges a very poignant portrayal of a child longing for her mother, our protagonist coming to terms with the lost years and her deep-rooted guilt at not bringing up a child of her own.
A powerful revival of an 80’s feminist classic play, which is as contemporary today as it was four decades ago.
Until 22nd June 2019
Lyttelton at the National Theatre
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