Review: Top Girls, Lyttleton, National Theatre

In the programme, playwright Caryl Churchill writes “When I wrote Top Girls I imagined 16 women in a play, though I knew I’d be unlikely to get it”. Well, she’s got it now. The National Theatre’s revival of her 1982 play Top Girls has done away with the multi-roling that a production with such a long cast list has previously necessitated. Directed by Lyndsey Turner, the story centres on Marlene (Katherine Kingsley), who becomes the top girl (hence the name) of a recruitment agency.

The first act is somewhat surreal, with Marlene hosting a dinner for a few of history’s lesser-known ground-breaking women. This act feels underdone, with the characters frustratingly constantly interrupting one-another. The moments in which we can really listen to what they are saying are few and far between. Amanda Lawrence is formidable as Pope Joan, telling the harrowing tale of the day her womanhood was discovered after giving birth in public and her subsequent stoning. However, the rest of the women’s stories, that include kidnap, rape and banishment, feel blown over or laughed off.

Act Two is an improvement and sees Marlene at work having been recently promoted. Here is obviously where the multi-roling would usually begin, but in Turner’s production, new cast members are brought in. Perhaps accidentally, multi-roling here might help to create a stronger link between the women of centuries before and the women coming into the agency in the present day, which may have been a shame to lose. A pivotal scene in which Marlene is confronted by the wife of a man whom she beat to her new position is acted brilliantly by both Kingsley and Roisin Rae and adds to Marlene’s no-nonsense brusqueness.

However, the real meat of the play begins after this scene, at a country home in Somerset. We’re introduced to Marlene’s niece Angie (Liv Hill) and her mother Joyce (Lucy Black), Marlene’s sister. It becomes clear that Angie has some sort of learning difficulty and Joyce is judged by Marlene for choosing to remain in her hometown to raise the child. What follows is a debate, which seems as though it has sprung up from nowhere, that examines the impact of social mobility on working class families and the beginnings of the effects of Thatcher’s leadership.

We suddenly recognise that costume designer Merle Hensel has put Joyce in a homely red knit jumper, while Marlene, the Iron Lady’s number one fan, is dressed head to toe in turquoise. They then descend into a heated debate about current political affairs. Marlene’s Conservative version of feminism thwarts her ability to empathise with or even respect her sister and Kingsley gives her an insufferable air of superiority. Black gives Marlene’s big sister Joyce the same, but hers is quiet and dignified. Hill is wide-eyed and child-like as the terribly frightened Angie. All three are exceptional in the final scene.

Churchill’s well-loved work is finally given the luxury of a large cast of women, but as a result Top Girls feels too large. Between Ian MacNeil’s varied, broad sets and the ever-changing actors, it feels as though we’re watching three completely different, inconsistent plays. While the play itself and its political connotations hold relevance today, this production leaves quite a bit to be desired.

Top Girls is playing the National Theatre until 22 June. For more information and tickets, visit the National Theatre website.