For a play of such status, Caryl Churchill’s 1982 classic Top Girls doesn’t get produced nearly as much as one might expect. There have been only a handful of major revivals since its Royal Court debut nearly 40 years ago – it’s more often seen in syllabuses than on stage nowadays.
Lyndsey Turner’s National Theatre staging, which runs in the Lyttelton until mid-June, arrives at an acute moment for Rufus Norris’ regime. Hot on the heels of widespread criticism of the lack of female playwrights in his latest season announcement comes this famous feminist drama.
Unusually for revivals of Top Girls, Turner’s production doesn’t feature doubling: an 18-strong cast all play one character each. That cast features three-time Olivier-nominee Katherine Kingsley in the lead role, as well as Amanda Lawrence, Siobhan Redmond, Lucy Black, and Liv Hill, making her professional stage debut.
But do Turner’s Top Girls tuck into this rare revival? Does Churchill’s play really resonate in 2019? Does the NT have a hit on its hands after a difficult week?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Back in the 1980s, Top Girls was considered thrillingly audacious, from its famous opening scene (a post-promotion dinner-party, featuring various women from history), to its daring dissection of feminism in the age of Thatcher. Does it still stand up today?
Most critics are sure that it does. It’s still “unapologetically challenging” according to Laura Barnett (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★), “a wonderful piece” according to Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★), and “important, forever relevant and still surprising” according to Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★).
“Churchill’s playfulness still comes across, and so does her anger,” observes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★), while Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk, ★★★★★) calls Churchill’s play a “masterpiece of masterpieces” and Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★★) reckons its “a work of genius that will never date”.
“Throughout the play, Churchill vividly dramatises the choices that women can and cannot make – and their repercussions,” writes David Benedict (The Stage, ★★★). “Although springing from the 1980s, those possibilities are still being debated.”
“She also offers a wider contemplation of the interplay between feminism and ambition,” chimes Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut, ★★★★★). “If a woman sacrifices everything to triumph in a world run by men, with male rules, in which men are not required to make the same sacrifices, is it a triumph?”
“This play was very explicitly written in the Thatcher era, but I don’t think these questions have dated,” he concludes.
In fact, it’s only Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) that thinks Churchill’s play is past it. “There’s no disguising the overall datedness and familiarity of what’s disclosed about British women’s lives in Churchill’s emphatically all-female play,” he sighs.
Lyndsey Turner has directed a Churchill play at the National before – a revival of Light Shining In Buckinghamshire in 2015, a year after she won the Olivier award for Best Director for Chimerica. She’s done plenty since, too: the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet at the Barbican, Faith Healer at the Donmar Warehouse, Saint George and the Dragon at the NT. How well does she handle Top Girls?
Some critics think her staging smartly shows the play as it has never been seen before. “Turner’s care for the text shines through, and if there’s a raison d’être for this production, it’s clearly the budget,” writes Lukowski. “The sweep from epic opening to intimate end is poignant and awesome, and there is something deeply impressive about seeing row upon row of women take their bows at the end. It’s Top Girls, given the production it always deserved.”
“This is a brightly directed version of a supremely intelligent drama,” adds Sierz, while Taylor opines that “directed by Lyndsey Turner, Top Girls has never seemed more hilarious, or wrenching” and that this “is the most dazzling and acute revival that the National Theatre has mounted since Dominic Cooke’s transcendent production of Follies”.
The majority of reviewers, though, think Turner makes a few mis-steps. Some object to the scope of the staging, with Billington writing that “on the vast open spaces of Ian MacNeil’s set, some of the play’s subtleties also get lost”, Shenton opining that the production “slightly mutes” the play’s impact with “designer trickery”, and Cavendish complaining that the “monumentalism” makes it feel like a “museum piece.”
Billington and Benedict both complain about the size of the cast: it’s large, with none of the traditional role-doubling, which Billington says removes the play’s “intriguing historical resonances” and Benedict says renders Churchill’s “thematic parallels and contrasts invisible”. Lukowski, conversely, reckons the lack of doubling “gives the whole thing room to breathe”.
Ann Treneman (Times,★★), meanwhile, just calls the whole thing “stilted”, Hitchings complains that it is never “consistently involving”, and Benedict labels it an “overstretched, underpowered revival”.
The size of the 18-strong cast might cause some consternation, then, but what about the quality? Turner’s Top Girls include Katherine Kingsley has main character Marlene, as well as Liv Hill as her niece Angie, and Amanda Lawrence as Pope Joan in the opening dinner-party scene.
Kingsley is lauded all round. She’s “excellent”, “brassy” and “brittle” according to Lukowski, “vividly confident” according to Sierz, and “perfection” according to Taylor, while Treneman calls her performance one of “statuesque aplomb”.
As is Hill, making her professional debut. She supplies a “beautifully awkward, understated performance” according to Billington, while Taylor admires her “hilarious and harrowing combination of dangerousness and need” and writes that he doesn’t see how she “could be better”.
Elsewhere, there is a lot of love for Lawrence’s Pope Joan. She’s “memorably quirky” for Hitchings and for Barnett she’s “superb” as “she lurches from Latin oration to drunken vomiting”.
In fact, the entire ensemble is widely praised – they are “on sparkling form” for Barnett, while Billington writes of a set of “striking performances” and Sierz admires how the “large and diverse cast” manages to “carry the drama”.
It’s a bit divisive. No one is in any doubt that Churchill’s play is a stone-cold masterpiece – a 20th-century classic that asks questions about feminism in a patriarchal, capitalist society that still resonate today, and that does so with amusement and audacity.
There’s pretty much nothing but praise for the performances, too, but some critics reckon Turner’s staging leaves a lot to be desired – it’s overblown and over-populated, and doesn’t do Churchill’s drama justice, according to the detractors.
Three five-star reviews from TimeOut, the ArtsDesk and the Independent are handy for the NT’s marketing department, but a torrent of three-star ratings elsewhere means Top Girls isn’t quite a top ticket.