Writer: Caryl Churchill
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
On the surface, the 1980s seemed like a huge breakthrough for women and for anyone growing-up in that decade there were gutsy female role models everywhere; the holders of the two pre-eminent governmental roles, the Prime Minister and the monarch, were women and on television the likes of Joan Collins and Stephanie Beecham were powerful icons. And, in 1982 Caryl Churchill’s seminal play Top Girls was first performed and while its central character may be an 80s archetype, her independence comes at a price.
Churchill’s play has only been revived in the West End a handful of times, so Lyndsey Turner’s new production for the National Theatre feels pertinent to a post- #MeToo era in which women are wondering how the gendered-landgrab of the 1980s became a return to the domestic pressure and obsession with image that dominates the modern era. What Turner’s interpretation highlights so well was that 80s feminism was essentially an aping of masculine working styles and concepts of independence that did little to build a support structure for the promotion of other women in the workplace.
The National’s new production demonstrates this most clearly in the well-staged scene at the end of Act One set in the Top Girls Agency office where a series of client interviews take place. Protagonist Marlene along with colleagues Win and Nell are pushy, aggressive saleswomen, grilling their clients without really listening while pushing them towards roles they don’t particularly want. Later both Marlene and her sister Joyce refer to Marlene’s niece Angie as ‘hopeless’ opening-up a chasm between women who can achieve and those who can’t, while the lengthy opening scene is full of historical women talking over one another to dominate the conversation. This is a strong theme that cuts through the play with Turner utilising Churchill’s many cues to ask what female success really looks like?
It is, however, a very difficult play to manage tonally, with each of its four scenes happening in entirely different styles. The content of the opener is engaging as five famous women from history have a raucous dinner with Marlene to celebrate her new job as Managing Director of the Top Girls agency, yet the overall scene feels flat. The dialogue is snappy and the characterisation certainly sharp as a Victorian explorer breaks bread with an in-disguise female Pope, a Japanese concubine, a medieval figure of obedience and a folklore warrior, but the fantasy nature of the setting and Marlene’s distorted idea of her own relative importance is lost in the too realistic setting. Ian MacNeil has designed a long central table in an upscale restaurant, but like many a production of Glengarry Glen Ross, it lacks the atmosphere of a buzzing restaurant full of other customers.
Yet, Top Girls is a play that builds as the story unfolds, so by the time we see Marlene in her element at work, MacNeil’s tonal set feels both stylish and stylised, referencing his own previous work on Machinal in the use of colour (pale green, blue and white) and creation of open space in which the characters feel free. After a long first half, it is the final scene that has the biggest impact, set in Joyce’s kitchen a year before in which the sisters argue about class, family and the life choices that led them in entirely different directions. The ebb and flow of collusion and collision is very well controlled by Turner and it turns the entire show on its head.
Kathryn Kingsley is an excellent Marlene, bringing just enough edge to the characterisation to prevent you from ever fully sympathising with her. Her control and self-belief give her an easy power in the office that brooks no opposition and in the final scene when she jokingly describes herself as “pushy” the audience knows it’s the key to her success. Yet, it is in Joyce’s kitchen where Kingsley’s is most powerful as we understand much more about the cold choices Marlene has made to secure her escape, the subtle signs of awkwardness Kingsley exhibits every time her niece talks to her and the fear of a wasted life bring psychological complexity to the performance. Marlene is not the role model Angie thinks she is, and Kingsley shows us the different levels of sacrifice and refusal to look back that are necessary to maintain her stability.
Lucy Black’s Joyce is equally powerful, unimpressed with her sister’s new life and at the same time partially resentful – at one point she stands bathed in the evening sunlight from the open door when Marlene is out of the room, before shutting out her own dreams once more. Liv Hill, making her stage debut, is a little too self-conscious as Angie, the teenage mannerisms and vocal style a little forced, but makes for a clear contrast with Marlene’s London world, while Ashna Rebheru fairs better with Kitty’s childlike demeanour in the play’s second scene.
Among the wider cast, the actors playing historical characters all tell compelling stories and form a convincing group, but Amanda Lawrence’s Pope Joan and Wendy Kweh’s Lady Niko stand out as the richest performances. Churchill notes in the programme that this may be the first production to have each character played by a separate actor, and although those in the first scene wander through the Top Girls office as extras, there is little to connect the relevance of this opening scene to the rest of the play.
Seeing Top Girls back in a major West End venue feels significant – notably, an all-female story with an all-female cast – and this production builds its argument well as the story unfolds. Churchill’s concern about the mixed-messages suggested by the powerful female icons of the 1980s comes across strongly here, and while Turner’s production takes a while to really come alive, it will leave you wondering what you really have to sacrifice to get what you want.
Runs until: 22 June 2019 | Image: Johan Persson