I think over the last 19 months I must have seen at least one play online from most major playwrights, but Caryl Churchill has eluded me, until now. Fortunately, that was now easily rectifiable by accessing National Theatre At Home which has just released their 2019 revival production of Top Girls. Considered by many to be Churchill’s best work it has made regular appearances on the A Level syllabus; even so this was my first time to it. I was quite surprised (though I don’t know why) by its large cast of characters, its telling dissection of political positions and its complex structure.
Even if you’ve never seen the play, its opening scene is rightly famous for its audacious conceit. The “which characters from history/fiction would you invite to a dinner party?” game is well known and here Churchill puts the fantasy front and centre. Main character Marlene celebrates her recent promotion by gathering together a Victorian explorer, a character from a 16th century Dutch painting, a female pope, a 13th century Japanese concubine turned nun and the central figure of tales by Boccaccio/Chaucer. It’s a fairly raucous affair as the women recount tales of their demeaning treatment at the hands of men. Yet, neither do they particularly listen to anyone else; they talk over each other and play some intense games of upwomanship. While this makes the dialogue of this supreme fantasy appear naturalistic it is not always easy to discern what is being said.
From here the play shifts location and becomes an intimate scene which seems to be set in a cellar in a rural part of Britain. Three brand new characters are introduced and for quite a while there seems to be no connection to what has gone before but gradually it emerges that two of the characters are Marlene’s sister Joyce and her niece Angie. The latter clearly idolises her aunt and the third scene finds her running away to London to track her down at her place of work at the recruiting agency named after the play’s title. Marlene is shown to be fairly ruthless, especially in a scene with the wife of the man she pipped to the post for the promotion, and some of this has rubbed off on her employees. In an unguarded moment she also reveals her true feelings towards her relatives.
The final scene takes place a whole year earlier in Joyce’s kitchen during one of Marlene’s infrequent visits to her roots. The two sisters are at opposite ends of the political spectrum with Joyce favouring old style socialism and Marlene a keen supporter of the (then) newly elected Margaret Thatcher. Churchill takes the opportunity to offer a damning critique of the system which, while it may be part of history now, at the time of the first production was remarkably prescient. But it is in the personal relationship of the two women that the play really comes alive. The last scene is, undoubtedly, the highlight of this production even if it does terminate rather abruptly without any resolution – though, of course we have seen how things play out in what has already gone before.
What really brings this section and, indeed Lyndsey Turner’s whole production to life, is the powerful acting of Katherine Kingsley and Lucy Black as the at-odds sisters contrasted by the touching performance of Liv Hill as naive Angie. There is quite a contrast with the earlier expansive scenes, and I know which I preferred. Other productions have used doubling to cover the large cast required but sparing no expense the National have gone for one actor, one role. While this is apparently fulfilling Churchill’s original intention and certainly suggested an epically historical sweep, I couldn’t help feeling that some strong actors from the first scene (Siobhán Redmond, Lucy Ellinson, Amanda Lawrence ) were radically underused and that some of the underlying connections were in danger of being missed.
Ian MacNeil’s well realised sets are a particular highlight with the restaurant rooted in reality but with a dreamlike aura and the kitchen quite obviously lived in. Costuming by Merle Hensel was another treat from the instantly recognisable power dressed padded shouldered 1980s to the slightly fantastical clothing of the dinner guests. Marlene and Joyce’s politics are simply delineated by the chosen colour palette.
I’m glad I stuck with the piece beyond the first scene which, interesting to see though it was, somehow didn’t ignite as it should. With all the tonal shifts that followed I almost felt that, by the end, I had watched three separate plays with some similarities of theme. As to whether I felt I had experienced what Michael Billington dubbed “the best British play ever from a woman dramatist”, I’m afraid the jury is still out.
Production photos by Johan Persson
Top Girls is available on National Theatre At Home – click here
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