Review: Top Girls, National Theatre
PUBLISHED: 12:47 05 April 2019 | UPDATED: 12:47 05 April 2019
Caryl Churchill’s 80s feminist classic gets an epic revival that has contemporary resonance if it sometimes lacks clarity and intimacy
Back in 1982 a female playwright putting 16 female characters on stage talking about the intersection of class, race and gender was a daring political act.
Decades on you can still feel the anger behind Churchill’s excoricating response to the notion that Britain’s first female Prime Minister signalled feminist progress.
At a time when we have another unsisterly Tory incumbent in No 10, Lyndsey Turner’s epic revival still feels relevant.
Much of its audacious structure stands the test of time, not least the genius opening scene in which historic and mythical women gather for a surreal dinner party to mark Marlene’s promotion.
There’s 9th Century Pope Joan who spent her life as a man, Japanese concubine Lady Nijo, wrathful Dull Gret from Flemish folklore, English Victorian explorer Lady Isabella Bird, and Patient Griselda from Boccaccio’s Decameron.
As they get drunk and talk men, babies and religion, there’s a clear sense of different time and place, same old sh**, as each women bends herself to patriarchal mores outrageously stacked in men’s favour.
Joan’s re-enactment of delivering a baby on a papal procession, and Gret’s charge through the mouth of hell are memorable. But Turner’s project loses both rhythm and impact in the next two acts which don’t quite cohere into a whole.
As MD of a city recruitment firm, Marlene is in a position to throw down a ladder. But, swallowing Thatcher’s individualist mantra, she’s the ruthless ballbuster appraising the female jobseekers’ age, marital status and appearance as much as their skills.
Seeing younger men promoted above you, having to hide your intention to have children, and suffering entitled men blagging their way to the top, all hold good today- even if Ian MacNeil’s expansive set doesn’t quite serve these intimate vignettes well.
When Marlene travels back to rural Suffolk, the personal and political collide in a row with her downtrodden but fiercely proud older sister Joyce.
She has shouldered the domestic responsiblities which have freed Marlene to succeed. Katherine Kingsley captures Marlene’s brittleness and the cost of her hard won success.
Lucy Black’s Joyce embodies downtrodden rage, while Liv Hill makes an impressive debut as Marlene’s needy special needs daughter Angie who is “too stupid and scared” to cut it in Thatcher’s Darwinian world.
It’s a challenging piece which packs nuance and complexity that isn’t always delivered by the production’s epic sweep but it’s still good to see these girls back on top.