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Wednesday 24 April 2019

Top Girls, Play written by Caryl Churchill directed by Lyndsay Turner, National Theatre, London 7* out of 10

Top Girls, the celebrated 1980s play by Caryl Churchill is well constructed and makes some important points still relevant today. In this production, however, the balance between drama, comedy and “Lehrst├╝ck” (pedagogic play) is tilted towards the latter and that did not quite work for me.   

England 1981. Thanks to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies, Britain is open for business like it has not been for decades. Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) has landed the top job at the employment agency Top Girls. She celebrates in a trendy Asian Restaurant with a few female historical figures who were in or close to it over the centuries: Isabella Bird (Siobhan Redmond) the Victorian lady traveller, the Pope Joan (Amanda Lawrence) who became pope pretending to be a man, Lady Nijo (Wendy Kweh) Japanese concubine, Boccaccio’s Patient Griselda (Lucy Ellinson) – it’s complicated, and Dull Gret (Ashley McGuire) a female warrior from the Low Countries in full armour. As they exchange their “war-stories” it becomes clear they are all female outliers who achieved some measure of success by abandoning a larger or smaller part of their femininity or enduring male cruelty with extraordinary resilience. Each had to pay a price for this over and above that paid by men in similar positions. As the play proceeds in non-chronological order we get to know Marlene’s work colleagues, the wife of the man who she beat to the top job, as well as Marlene’s sister Joyce (Lucy Black), Angie (Liv Hill), Marlene’s niece who suffers from learning difficulties and her younger friend Kit (Ashna Rubheru). 

What kind of feminism is the one based on ruthless competitive and individualistic Thatcherist worldview? Is it desirable to have a small number of women rise to the top by behaving like men, at a cost to other women and themselves? These questions are put most convincingly by Marlene’s sister, the life she leads and the dignity she aspires to.

One doesn’t have to agree with playwright Caryl Churchill’s views to appreciate the intelligent way she weaves them into a contemporary drama with historical references and director Lyndsay Turners lavish production with an all-female cast of 18. The 1982 play is still relevant, although in the context was different from today. Top Girls examines the price to be paid by exceptional women who succeed in the business world and the divide between them and the other women: those whose support is crucial, those who need support and will not function well in a ruthlessly competitive environment. And there’s the question of children or career. 

The key relationship is between Marlene and her sister Lucy, which is reflected in how their different lives have led to different worldviews: Marlene’s sister wants a social structure that gives dignity to all and looks after its weak. Marlene has worked herself up from humble beginnings and operates successfully in a world that focuses on the most talented, and disrespects weakness even in those close to us by social or family connection.

The physical absence of men from this play is notable. When absent men are mentioned they are portrayed as weak and vulnerable, neither as unsurmountable competition nor as potential support to the women in their lives. Through the thoughtful and acutely observant character of Marlene’s sister Joyce, the writer expresses her concern about women accepting the neoliberal narrative that, be it man or woman, the talented will rise to the top and the untalented (including those with learning difficulties) and the unwilling will find the place they deserve on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Organising motherhood in an environment where market-based competition reigns supreme seems to demands that some women must substitute in caring roles for those women who succeed in business.

Lindsay Turner's lavish production of this revival features 18 woman actors giving strong performances with Lucy Black shining as Joyce, who is also the character that seems to be the most genuine.

While I appreciated Top Girls on an intellectual level as cleverly constructed and at times witty, I did not connect to the characters on an emotional level. The simultaneity of part of the conversations in the opening scene is unnecessary and a bit irritating as one loses out on hearing some good lines. Except for Joyce and to a lesser extent Angie I found the characters to be written too much as types for making an admittedly important social and political point to fully engage with them and their fate. The balance between drama, comedy and “Lehrst├╝ck” (pedagogic play) is tilted towards the latter in this production. Still, Caryl Churchill fans will not want to miss this revival.

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