Theatre: Top Girls, National Theatre

The play Top Girls was highly topical when it was written, nearly 40 years ago.

Feminism was fighting to carve out a place for women in the workplace, women were making difficult choices between career and family, and Margaret Thatcher was the first woman Prime Minister, yet critics said she was “too masculine.”

Now these themes seem very historical. Now, this play smells of mothballs.

The writer Caryl Churchill is a veteran of the British Theatre. A committed feminist and socialist, she had a very particular vision of how women should be when she wrote this play.

She rejected what she saw as the American “individualist approach” of allowing certain female stars to shine.

Mrs Thatcher famously said “let our children grow tall, and some taller than others, if they have it in them”.

Churchill seems to prefer a more egalitarian approach – where the high performers would be held back, and the strugglers lifted up to the mean.

This is what this play is about. As a piece of theatre it certainly has mixed success. The action is difficult to follow, especially with programme notes which are interesting to read afterwards, but give the baffled theatre-goer limited guidance to what is going on on stage.

The opening is a fantasy sequence. The central character, Marlene, who embodies the successful, thrusting, career woman of the 1980s, gathers together a cross section of historical and fictional female figures.

They are at some kind of restaurant to celebrate her recent promotion to managing director at Top Girls (an employment agency).

Though you have to listen hard to get this. This fantasy is an interesting theatrical device.

TOP GIRLS by Caryl Churchill,  ,  The National Theatre, 2019,

Churchill has chosen each of these characters to illustrate how women have been downtrodden at different points in history. And what sacrifices they have made to get on. But they’re an odd bunch.

A collection of historical footnotes – Isabella Bird, Lady Nijo, Dull Gret, Pope Joan and Patient Griselda. Katherine Kingsley brilliantly plays Marlene, in jackets that appropriately have shoulders a metre wide.

She is a formidable, Thatcher-like figure. It is hard to believe these would really be her choice of heroines.

She’s the sort of person who would have chosen Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Lady Macbeth etc. The ladies get riotously drunk, and there is some attempt at comedy on stage.

We are then transported (again with little explanation) to a scene where two schoolgirls are arguing in a cellar. My neighbour whispered “what on Earth is going on?”

Newcomer Liv Hill is particularly impressive as the annoying Angie, who we (eventually) learn is Marlene’s struggling niece.

The plot only picks up when we visit Marlene’s workplace Top Girls.

We get a look at some contemporary work experiences. Contemporary to 40 years ago that is. The worthy exception is the finely drawn character of Louise (Amanda Hadingue).

She is here looking for a new position because she is fed up with men she has trained, inferior to her, going on to much better positions.

Anyone who has suffered from the glass ceiling will identify with her. What appears most dated is when the wife of the man Marlene beat to the top job turns up at the office to berate her.

Mrs Kidd (Roisin Rae) is simply not plausible now. When Marlene tells her to get lost, we are all on Marlene’s side.

Indeed, it is only in the last scene that Churchill tries to turn us against her. Marlene is confronted with her frumpy failure of a sister Joyce (Lucy Black), who spouts dated views.

Are we really meant to feel Marlene should have stayed at home and somehow not “grown tall”? I fear so. Churchill is a veteran playwright, now in her 80s.

Many of the themes in this play are still worth exploring, but this piece really does show its age.

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill is at the National Theatre until July 20.

Visit or call 020 7452 3000 for details.

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