National Theatre, London – until 22 June 2019
Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls has currency today but the shoulder pads and back-combed hair aren’t the only echoes of the period in which it was written. Its themes of women’s role in society, their career options, the expectations, sacrifices and prejudices have echoes in today’s exposure of the gender pay gap and lack of representation at board level.
A restaurant dinner with a fantasy guest list opens the play, the singularity of which is only revealed as the story progresses. It is hosted by Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) who is celebrating a promotion to a senior position at a recruitment agency.
She is joined for dinner by a collection of notable but perhaps unfamiliar women from history and folklore.
Pope Joan (Amanda Lawrence) posed as a man and rose up the Catholic hierarchy until giving birth exposed her true sex.
Lady Nijo (Wendy Kweh) was a concubine to a Japanese Emperor who later wrote about the prejudice and hardship she endured and Isabella Bird (Siobhan Redmond) was an explorer and writer in Victorian England.
From folklore, there is Dull Gret (Ashley McGuire), a figure of folklore leading an army of women to pillage hell and Patient Griselda (Lucy Ellinson) who was consistently tested by her husband in often cruel ways but remained patient and obedient.
They are connected by their struggles, trials and achievements within the patriarchal society but it is a difficult scene to get a handle on, less a conversation more a series of statements, recollections and a lot of intercutting and over talking. Just as you think you’ve grasped it, it’s moved on which gets frustrating.
More frustrating is that as the play progresses you realise this opening scene is an extravagant and perhaps slightly overly indulgent scene setter introducing a group of interesting women who never reappear.
It’s a tease, a masterclass in timing, delivered by an exceptional cast many of whom have only bit parts in the remainder of the play.
Where the story goes after this opening scene is to delve into Marlene’s life, through her work and her relationship with her sister Joyce (Lucy Black) and 16-year-old niece Angie (Liv Hill).
While Marlene has a high-flying career in London, Joyce and Angie still live in the rural countryside where the sisters grew up.
Sacrifices for career success
In order to progress her career, Marlene has made sacrifices – the true extent of which is slowly revealed. She’s become more ‘masculine’ in her manner, abrasive, direct and arguably ruthless.
You get a greater sense of what she’s been up against (and what has perhaps changed) when the wife of a male colleague, above whom she has now been promoted, comes to berate her hinting that she should step down.
Marlene gives her short shrift.
Punching the air
Top Girls is a curious play, a mixture of moments that had me mentally punching the air, feeling angry and a little frustrated.
It is both a lesson in how far we’ve progressed when it comes to attitudes towards successful women – and in nurturing and allowing that success – and how far there is still to go.
However, the opening scene does feel odd. If you were to omit it, would it make much difference to the narrative and themes? Probably not and that just left me thinking what a waste of the collective talent it was.
The play is two hours and 30 minutes including an interval, it is at the National Theatre in rep until 20 July.
It is getting ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ from me.
You might also like to read:
If you can get a ticket, go and see A German Life at Bridge Theatre – exceptional story, exceptionally told by Maggie Smith ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
Also at the National Theatre (and bloody good) is Downstate ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
And for fringe theatre fans Funeral Flowers at the Bunker Theatre offers brilliant insight into the struggles of a 17-year-old living with a carer ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
Let’s block ads! (Why?)