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Last Chance To See: Top Girls @ Lyttelton Theatre

15th July 2019

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For a play that’s been a staple of women’s lit modules at universities across the country for years, it’s easy to find it slightly odd that Caryl Churchill’s most famous work has only been staged a handful of times since its premier in 1982. 

Image courtesy of The National Theatre 

The play has been called a work of genius, but some might argue that its opening act - in which Thatcherite recruitment consultant and all round “Top Girl” Marlene hosts a drinks party for a group of real and fictional women from across history - is more than a bit disjointed from the rest of the play. They wouldn’t be wrong, and it might be this that has made it a difficult play to stage in its almost 40 years of existence. 

The National Theatre has taken on the challenge, though, and the majority of the reviews that it has garnered over its four-month run have been positive. This Top Girls has a big cast, a long run, and a prime staging location at our premier theatre on London’s South Bank. 

So why does it feel like it’s missing something? 

As it enters its final week, it’s hard to establish why this rare staging of Top Girls doesn’t quite hit the mark. Certainly, all the components are there: a darkly comic story of sisters and sacrifice, a powerful lead in Katherine Kingsley, and an aesthetic that pairs a sleek, deceptively pastel-coloured 1980s office and prominent shoulder pads with a down-trodden family in a rural village, struggling to keep going. 

Kingsley storms the stage as Marlene, the woman who seemingly has it all, but whose story fractures subtly throughout the two and a half hour running time until the weight that she’s secretly carrying is revealed in a climactic finale. 

Liv Hill is equal parts touching and disturbing as the teenage Angie, and successfully keeps us on edge as her innocence threatens to reveal something more terrifying. The lighting, staging, and costume choices add to the vague feeling that Angie - the girl who no one believes will amount to anything - actually holds the truth behind the veneer that we see, most prominently displayed by her seemingly beloved aunt Marlene. 

Overall the play has aged well, and the comment it provides on the limitations placed on women’s ambitions is still relevant - although certain moments (especially the insistence that Angie will never get a job, have a family or succeed at anything in general) are difficult to listen to in 2019. 

It’s as surreal as might be expected, with the mythic Pope Joan, Chaucer’s Patient Griselda, Bruegel’s Dull Gret, real Victorian explorer Isabella Bird and 13th Century Japanese concubine Lady Nijo all assembling to “celebrate” Marlene’s promotion in the opening minutes, as the latter attempts to hold court.

As the celebration descends into which woman can tell the most harrowing tale of woe, we might fail to realise that these characters have been carefully chosen to reflect those we meet later in the play. It’s something that’s been lost, potentially, by the decision not to have actors playing more than one role. Often by necessity actors have taken on more than one character in Top Girls’ previous productions, and in choosing not to do this this version could be accused of overlooking the links between them - and in turn, between the similar challenges faced (and still faced) by women across the centuries. 

As Angie herself says: frightening.

Top Girls is running at The Lyttelton Theatre, part of The National Theatre, until 20th July. Get tickets here.

Lead image courtesy of The National Theatre 

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