A dinner party brings together five iconic female figures from history and myth in Caryl Churchill’s famous play, Top Girls. Our arts contributor, Jo Hemmings, reviews the National Theatre’s latest revival of Churchill’s feminist classic.
Top Girls must have the most bizarre opening scene of any play.
In it, successful career woman Marlene celebrates her promotion in work by hosting a dinner for a group of iconic historical or fictional women. Her guests are: Isabella Bird (19th century English traveller and explorer), Pope Joan (legendary female pope of the Middle Ages), Lady Nijo (concubine of the Japanese Emperor in the 13th century), Patient Griselda (fictional character found in Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale and Perrault’s fairy tales) and Dull Gret (folkloric figure of an angry, hot-tempered woman, known from the Bruegel painting of the 16th century). What links all of these women are their extraordinary qualities and the remarkable choices they each made in dealing with their singular circumstances.
It is easily the best scene of this production at the National Theatre.
Pope Joan gets the most laughs. With amusing nonchalance, she recounts how she secretly dressed as a man to progress in life until, when pope, she became pregnant and unwittingly gave birth during a papal procession. Pitched perfectly by actress Amanda Lawrence, she had the audience laughing out loud one moment at her baby which ‘just slid out onto the road’, then silent in shock the next, as her account finishes completely straight: ‘They took me by the feet and dragged me out of town and stoned me to death.’
Then there is Dull Gret, entertaining through her rare monosyllabic interjections: ‘pig’, ‘potatoes’, ‘balls!’ and various other rude words. When Marlene (played by Katherine Kingsley) asks her how many children she had the answer is simply ‘ten’, but the conversation zips on without any pause to let that point hit home. Only at the end does Dull Gret get her moment when actress Ashley McGuire, clad in her manly armour, stands on the restaurant table to deliver her angry rant about how she roused a group of women to action and stormed hell.
Perhaps the most infuriating of the women is Patient Griselda (played by Lucy Ellinson). Her story is that, having promised to always obey her husband Walter, a prince, she endures him taking both her children away from her and then pretending to renounce their marriage. This ordeal turns out to simply be a test of whether she loves and obeys her husband enough, and all ends happily when she is reunited with her children, long believed by her to be dead. Upon learning of her giving up her second child, Lady Nijo (played by Wendy Kweh) asks conversationally ‘was it easier the second time or harder?’ The real-life Lady Nijo bore several children for the Japanese Emperor, and others, before becoming a Buddhist nun. Later on, Lady Nijo poignantly interrupts with ‘nobody gave me back my children’.
And throughout the scene, there is Isabella Bird (played by Siobhan Redmond) recounting her enduring hardships on her travels, unconcerned that she is deviating so strongly from the female norms of her time. On her male companion: ‘He found it interesting, I think, that I could make the scones and also lasso cattle. Indeed he declared his love for me which was most distressing.’
Taken as a whole, this opening scene is near-virtuosic, the characters interrupting and overlapping each other, the similarities in their individual stories pulled out and expertly woven together. It builds to a final – and hilarious – image of this new group of friends sprawling drunkenly all over the restaurant table, with Pope Joan visibly vomiting in the background as Patient Griselda holds her up.
Apart from its highly unusual opening scene, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is notable for its non-linear structure. During a very long first half comprising both Acts 1 and 2, the dinner scene is followed by a scene introducing Angie (Marlene’s secret daughter being brought up by her sister Joyce) and a scene of Marlene in work at the Top Girls Employment Agency, where she has been recently promoted. The final act takes place one year earlier, when Marlene turned up to visit Joyce and Angie resulting in a catastrophic and moving argument.
All of the actresses in this production at the National Theatre, directed by Lindsey Turner, were excellent, and it was of course refreshing to see an entirely female cast. Special mention should be made of Liv Hill, making her astonishing professional theatre debut as Marlene’s daughter. As described in the cutting remarks of Marlene at the end of Act 2: ‘She’s a bit thick. She’s a bit funny’ and ‘She’s not going to make it’. From arguing with her only friend Kit, holding a brick ready to murder her assumed mother Joyce (played by Lucy Black), or awkwardly turning up at Marlene’s work before falling asleep, Liv Hill perfectly encapsulates all these different aspects of Angie, making the audience sympathise with this sad and difficult character.
This production appears to be the first in which there has been a different actress for every part, rather than the opening seven actresses later doubling up as the other ‘real’ people in Marlene’s life. Caryl Churchill herself seems unbothered by this. In a ‘Playwright’s Note’ in the programme she acknowledges the ‘pleasure in seeing a few people become many’ and the ‘fun for the actors and the audience’ yet writes that ‘doubling inevitably sets up resonances, but in this case it was practical rather than meaningful’. I feel like this is maybe too simplistic. Given the surreal opening scene, and the non-linear time structure, it is more necessary than ever to create resonances between the different acts of the play. The very purpose of the famous women in the opening scene is to add new perspectives to Marlene’s character and set up parallels with other women later in the play, something that the dialogue shows was clearly Caryl Churchill’s intention. For example, Louise, an older woman visiting the employment agency, directly attributes her success in her previous job to her acting like a man, connecting her most obviously with Pope Joan. For me – and, I suspect, for almost any newcomer to the play – doubling actresses would have been more satisfactory.
Overall, I felt the National Theatre played it a bit safe. Secure in their audience demand, safe in their budget, it was a slick and polished production that did exactly what you would expect the National Theatre to do. I found myself thinking that what I would really have liked to have seen – fully accepting how challenging it would have been – was a version of Top Girls set in the present day. Arguing about Thatcherite politics is, quite frankly, alienating to a younger audience. But the themes of the play are not. The role of women and how much they have to give up to be as successful as a man remains a pertinent topic in today’s modern society. In such a version, the brilliantly acted scene between Marlene and Joyce at the end would have truly been electric.
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls will be shown at the National Theatre, London, from 15th April until the 20th July. Click here to purchase tickets and for more information about the production. To find out about the National Theatre’s free 16-25 entry pass, which entitles you to purchase tickets for £7.50, click here.