What do women give up in order to be successful? This is the question that lies at the heart of Caryl Churchill's uneven but wildly inventive 1982 play Top Girls, revived in a new production, directed by Lyndsey Turner, at the National Theatre's Lyttelton auditorium.
Career women Marlene has landed a big promotion at the Top Girls employment agency, the first woman in the company to do so. Her triumph is a symptom of a society where ambition is an excuse for self-obsession. To celebrate her rise, she hosts a spectacular fantasy dinner party in which the guests come dressed as women from the past–high achievers, though they all turn out to have made painful sacrifices. Audacious Victorian explorer Isabella Bird rubs shoulders with Brueghel the Elder subject Dull Gret and medieval courtesan Lady Nijo. They are joined by Griselda, a character from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, whom embodies patience in the face of cruelty, and ninth-century Pope Joan, who has disguised herself as a man but blown her cover by giving birth.
Back in reality, Marlene's promotion is both celebrated and envied by her similarly high-powered female colleagues at her viciously competitive workplace. But she must also contend with her resentful sister Joyce, left behind in Suffolk, along with her immature teenage niece Angie, and the familial and maternal roles she has abdicated in order to pursue her career.
This ambitious work covers a lot of topics–women, work, children, class, power politics and the exceptional individual, and views the role of women from multiple perspectives. Written during the rise of Thatcherism, the play straddles period piece and present and is surprisingly topical in its portrait of an individualistic society, in which the few survive at the expense of the many.
But Lyndsey Turner's lavish production is cryptic without being disturbing and never quite captures the rhythms of Churchill's overlapping dialogue, feeling stilted more often than dynamic. Furthermore the production isn't consistently involving, though the poverty from which Marlene has escaped, is well observed, as is her relationships with Joyce and Angie.
Ian MacNeil's eye catching set swells from the dingy, concrete bunker Angie hangs out in to the bright lights and open spaces of the Top Girls agency.
Turner draws commendable performances from her all-female cast. Katherine Kingsley makes an acerbic, striding high achiever in Marlene. Lucy Black impresses as her estranged sister Joyce, confined to a life of domestic drudgery, and Liv Hill, in a notable stage debut, makes a passionate and energetic Angie. Good support is provided by Amanda Lawrence as a quirky Pope Joan, sharing lofty theological ideas while vigorously grinding a modern pepper mill, Siobhan Redmond as Isabella Bird, Wendy Kweh, Lady Nijo, Ashley McGuire Dull Gret and Lucy Ellinson Patient Griselda.
Top Girls presents an argument for compassion, as well as a sharp look at social inequality in a country divided by its own ambitions.
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