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Top Girls by Caryl Churchill at the Lyttelton Theatre | Review

Katherine Kingsley - Marlene in Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. Photo Johan Persson
Katherine Kingsley – Marlene in Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. Photo by Johan Persson

Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls isn’t really for the slow. It’s stop-start, jumpy, fast and slow. Highly comic, instantly tragic. This is a script which shows the full capacity of a brilliant writer without holding anything back.

The first scene opens on a ‘gals’ catch up in an expensive looking restaurant in London, 1981. The twist is that they are all historic or fictional characters from the 9th century to the 21st. From Pope Joan (Amanda Lawrence) to Dull Gret (Ashley McGuire) to Marlene (Katherine Kingsley), the dinner has an absurdly comic sense of ‘women through time’ plays. They talk over each other, catch up on gossip and recount their shared and divergent experiences of the patriarchy of the era. From common remarks about sexism in the workplace to shocking accounts of being stoned to death for being a woman, the bizarre mix up of eras has the sense of being a kind of historical account of gender, but also of the everyday and the normal.

Then suddenly the scene changes and we’re in a backyard in Suffolk and Angie (Liv Hill) and Kit (Ashna Rabheru) are chit-chatting away about teenage life. Their characterisations are pitch-perfect, finding nice balances between comedy and total sincerity. Though this scene is largely played for laughs, Hill seems to retain a seriousness about her character; her mother, Joyce (Lucy Black) later remarks that Angie is “a bit slow”. It’s never clear what role this plays in the play, but then Top Girls never pauses to explain itself.

Scene change again, and we’re back in London at Marlene’s work ‘Top Girls Employment Agency’, a wonderfully late 70s set, designed by Ian McNeill. Marlene’s just been promoted to manager and she’s dealing with office politics, be that in the form of entitled men or somewhat snobby women.

This scene is really where Churchill’s script finds its strength: each of the agency’s clients represents simultaneously specific and universal aspects of 21st-century womanhood. The juggling of family and career, expectations of male employers, husbands and colleagues, and personal ambitions. Various clients give their ‘piece’ on the kind of woman they’ve tried to be; with a less accomplished writer, this would be where the ‘politics’ of the show would be revealed, and the banner pinned to the mast. Here, however, Churchill gives a fair hearing to everyone’s perspective, revealing the precarity beneath the everywoman.

Act 2 is a short, 40-minute kitchen sink ‘one year earlier’ examining Marlene’s home life. She visits Angie’s house and reignites a fraught relationship with her sister. They argue about everything from class and Thatcher to family and old age. Again, Churchill shows her skill, retaining a sense of reality; she doesn’t use this as a chance to stamp out her message, but as an examination of family and childhood aspirations.

It is also here that a minor thread about Angie being “a bit slow” comes out. No details are made clear, no sympathies or criticisms of anybody. She likes hanging out with younger kids, and Joyce doesn’t think she’ll have a career. Perhaps we’re supposed to recognise the impending cuts to social services that a Thatcherite government will bring upon a family such as hers? Maybe we’re supposed to laugh? Much like the rest of the show, we don’t get any chance to stop and think about what it might mean, but unlike other moments, this time it doesn’t quite flow together.

This is quite a wacky show, with commentary on sexism and classism but also day to day remarks about life which seem to be true of any era. To her credit, but not to ours, Churchill’s critique of gender relations rings true as ever. This is only complemented by her awkward, non-stop, stop-start pastiche of modern life. Maybe modern life is too non-stop sometimes.

4 stars

Review by Thomas Froy

Now hiring: top girls wanted for prestige positions. Must be self-motivated go-getters with an appetite for success. No timewasters.

Marlene is the first woman to head the Top Girls employment agency. But she has no plans to stop there. With Maggie in at Number 10 and a spirit of optimism consuming the country, Marlene knows that the future belongs to women like her.

CAST
Lucy Black
Jessica Brindle
Lucy Ellinson
Amanda Hadingue
Angie – Liv Hill
Ebony Jonelle
Marlene – Katherine Kingsley
Lady Nijo – Wendy Kweh
Pope Joan – Amanda Lawrence
Marcia Lecky
Charlotte Lucas
Dull Gret – Ashley McGuire
Kit – Ashna Rabheru
Roisin Rae
Isabella Bird – Siobhan Redmond
Kate Tydman
Nadia Williams
Naomi Yang

Production Team
Director – Lyndsey Turner
Set Designer – Ian MacNeil
Costume Designer – Merle Hensel
Lighting Designer – Jack Knowles
Sound Designer – Christopher Shutt
Composer – Cassie Kinoshi
Staff Director – Sita Thomas

Top Girls
by Caryl Churchill
Lyttelton Theatre
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 30 mins, including an interval.
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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