National Theatre, London – until 22 June 2019
I’m coming to Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982) afresh. Well, sort of. I read the play a few years ago, but I’ve not seen it and wasn’t born until 10 years after its original production at the Royal Court.
To finally see it is to have many of the questions I had when reading it answered. I’ve read two main threads of criticism levelled against Lyndsey Turner’s production: firstly that it’s excessive and secondly that the play is now dated. I disagree with both. Turner has not chosen to double up actors, the effect of which is indeed a large cast. But one of the reasons for doubling in previous productions was to meet an economic necessity, something not necessarily an issue in an NT production. And so even if this production doesn’t benefit from the other effects of doubling, Turner and the National are quite rightly reclaiming this seminal play from Max Stafford-Clark’s production(s).
The set design may also be described as excessive but more on that later. As for it being dated, yes Top Girls is a play of, set in and partly about the 1980s. But to claim that there’s been so much of a sea change that the issues raised are now obsolete would be a fallacy. A culture of greed, divisive politics and issues regarding the mixing of the personal and the professional speak to us just as much now. And even if they didn’t, to see a play of such formal brilliance where Churchill so lucidly captures the issues of the decade is more than enough. Churchill, like the women in the first act, is a trailblazer.
The first act is set on a Saturday night in a London restaurant, 1981. But among Marlene’s guests is the ill-fated Pope Joan, the 12th century Japanese concubine Lady Nijō, celebrated Victoria explorer Isabelle Bird (played with a no nonsense Yorkshire feistiness by Siobhán Redmond), a figure of folklore from a renaissance painting (the mostly silent but utterly watchable Ashley McGuire), and a character from the Canterbury Tales.
These women, from different times and different places, some only fabled, congregate here in this restaurant on a Saturday night to share their life stories with the recently promoted Marlene. It’s occasionally a difficult scene to follow: interruptions, simultaneous speech and no facile bits of exposition make it all the more beguiling. We hear their achievements, their turmoil and heartbreaks, how they made their own destinies but also were controlled by men. Turner orchestrates the scene very nicely, with each character appearing from a doorway as waitresses pass by not batting an eyelid. Culminating in Dull Gret’s monologue about Hell and death, the theatricality crescendos as the scene fades away into the abyss as Ian MacNeil’s set pulls back into the darkness.
The strangeness of this first act prepares us for peculiarities and anachronisms further on in the play. One of the big pushes in feminist theatre was to show that ‘the personal is political’. What Churchill does in Top Girls is to present a dichotomy between the personal and the professional. MacNeill’s design reflects division, evoking definite, solid, tangible worlds for the scenes in Suffolk compared to the more cosmic open spaces for the scenes set in London. The restaurant has a celestial mural fronted by a sunken space around the table, giving a sort of 80s restaurant-cum-Star Trek vibe. The recruitment agency’s office opens up the space even more, with a few desks, lights and walls marking out the space around which we can see the Lyttelton’s vast stage. There’s a different, more natural, aesthetic for the other scenes. The unused parts of the stage are closed off, and a lot of effort has gone into creating the feel of the countryside: the slate tiled floor, the wooden beams, the saucer of milk from the large milk bottle put outside the backdoor. They are two separate worlds and when characters cross boundaries from Suffolk to London or from London to Suffolk, they clash. Earlier, we completely accept that a female Pope from the Middle Ages, maybe real maybe not, is eating cannelloni in an 80s’ restaurant. But when a scruffy girl from Ipswich walks into the cosmopolitan, dazzling world of *Recruitment*, she doesn’t belong and we feel it as well. Likewise, when Marlene returns home (set a year earlier) in the third act, it’s a lifestyle – and a life – away from which she’s been trying to distance herself. Her destiny has not been determined by the society into which she was born, but at a cost. Place, then, plays an integral part of the political undercurrents in the play: where is moving forward and where has been left behind?
There is a plot which develops that recalls the some of the earlier themes of motherhood and autonomy in the stories from act one. Through Marlene choosing between motherhood and a career, defined in the play as belonging to two separate worlds, Top Girls is a blistering attack on the politics of the era. Of course those two worlds don’t have to be separate but they come to represent a divided country. Katherine Kingsley and Lucy Black give outstanding performances as sisters Marlene and Joyce respectively. Some might say they are mouthpieces for two sides of an argument, but they each flesh out their characters, creating sisters that have years of a love-hate relationship under their belts. Also very good is Liv Hill as Angie, falling behind and wanting something more but maybe not having the means or opportunities to do so.
Top Girls plays at the National Theatre until 20th July.
Katherine Kingsley, Amanda Lawrence, Ashley McGuire, Lucy Ellinson and Wendy Kweh in Top Girls. Credit: Johan Persson