National Theatre, London – until 22 June 2019
Back in 1982 Helen Gurley Brown, then editor of US Cosmopolitan, informed the world that women could “have it all”. As if, in an act of defiance, in the same year, writer Caryl Churchill replied with Top Girls, a quirky and off-beat play that shows the price women must pay in trying to combine being the perfect mother with a high-flying career.
The National Theatre’s revival of Top Girls is quite a nostalgia trip for anyone who remembers the early 80s. It was an era defined by industrial unrest, Margaret Thatcher, a memorable Royal wedding and those awful Dynasty-inspired power-suits (actually, hideous fashion generally). If nothing else Top Girls highlights just how far we’ve come… or have we?
It is a bizarre play, with its characters speaking over each other in a cacophony of noise that occasionally makes the dialogue difficult to understand. But it follows one superwoman, Marlene, in her quest for promotion in a male-dominated world.
Katherine Kingsley, the least likely looking Marlene I can think of, is determined and single minded. She escaped a life of domestic drudgery in Suffolk for the bright lights of London and a dream of making it big.
Top Girls opens with Marlene hosting a dinner party at a restaurant where her guests are all supposedly famous women from history who suffered for their sex. Perhaps it was my comprehensive school upbringing but the only one who meant anything to me was Pope Joan from the Middle Ages.
Legend has it that she allegedly deceived everyone about her gender and became the head of the Catholic Church, only to give the game away by going into labour. Amanda Lawrence, as Joan, tells a great story, regaling the group with how she took a lover, right under the noses of her priests.
But I was constantly drawn to Ashley McGuire’s Dull Gret who is largely monosyllabic, and spends most of her time gorging on the grub. While everyone else is interrupting each other and talking animatedly, she quietly gets stuck in. Possibly the dullest guest at a dinner party but also one of the most interesting.
Marlene, in contrast, is unlikely to go down in history.
Her one small footnote in the annuls of feminist history is that she has become the new boss of an employment agency where woman are told to dress for success and, if they work at it, they may get promotion from anonymous secretarial post to a slightly more interesting PA position.
Top Girls takes a sinister turn when it drops in on a conversation between two teenage girls – the disturbed Angie, 15, and her more timid friend Kit.
Angie clearly has mental health issues. She lives with Marlene’s sister, Joyce, but she plans to run away and find her auntie in London.
It’s hard to believe that Liv Hill, as Angie, is making her professional theatre debut because she stands out among an experienced and over-stuffed female cast.
Her unnerving portrayal of a troubled teen keeps the audience on tenterhooks. You never know what she’s going to do next.
Angie struggles to find the right words and she stands there picking at her fingers before the sentences tumble out of her. She’s one of the forgotten ones, doomed for the scrapheap, in an era when women’s ambitions could finally be realised.
Kingsley gives a good solid performance as the brazen, boozy Marlene but there are others whose talents are wasted.
Churchill admits, in the programme notes, that roles have been doubled up for smaller casts in previous productions. Here, director Lyndsey Turner, with a generous National Theatre budget, casts a total of 18 women for the three-act play.
Some, like Siobhán Redmond and Lawrence, are given too little to do, mainly appearing in the opening dinner party scene, and then dispatched back to history.
Lucy Black, as Joyce, gets a couple of rollicking rows with her sister, and not much else.
Top Girls reminds us that the fight for equality and diversity started, to all intents and purposes with Britain’s most famous woman politician, who combined raising two kids with rising through the ranks of the Conservative Party.
Yet Margaret Thatcher is denied a place at Marlene’s top table. Nor is there room for Boadicea who led a nation against the Romans, sacrificing her daughters along the way.
A bit of a feminist oddball but with moments of inventiveness.
Top Girls runs in the Lyttelton Theatre until July 20.
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