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Top Girls review at National Theatre, London – ‘underpowered revival of Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece’

Liv Hill and Katherine Kingsley in Top Girls at National Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson

“I think the Eighties are going to be stupendous.” That’s the moment when the capital P political dimension of Caryl Churchill’s most celebrated play finally surfaces.

The climax of Top Girls, it’s the start of the emotional showdown between two sisters that delineates and calcifies their lives. The fact that the line comes not at the beginning but at the end of an exchange about the men in their lives indicates, thrillingly, how it rises not from a playwright’s thesis but from character.

At least, it should. But as directed here, Katherine Kingsley’s Marlene pauses before the line then begins it as a new thought so the ensuing argument feels tacked on and forced. Sadly, that gear change, with its consequent drop in the emotional temperature, is typical of Lyndsey Turner’s overstretched, underpowered revival.

In 1982, three years after Cloud Nine, Churchill’s gender-and-genre-busting comedy of sexual politics, Top Girls triumphantly sealed her reputation as the UK’s most audacious playwright. The question is whether or not something so time-specific can still speak to contemporary audiences.

Thirty-seven years on, its structure still startles. The play opens in a chic restaurant with a lavish, hard-drinking celebration dinner thrown by high-flier Marlene, who has been promoted to director of the employment agency that gives the play its title. But, in a blaze of authorial self-confidence, instead of inviting her staff, Marlene is hosting six other high-achieving women from history and fiction, an idea Churchill partly drew from Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a now legendary feminist artwork consisting of 39 individual ceramic place settings each representing a woman from history.

Everything then immediately switches into naturalism, swapping between scenes of hiring and firing at London’s Top Girls agency and tense domestic scenes in the run-down rural home of Marlene’s sister Joyce (Lucy Black), who is struggling on her own to make ends meet (she has four cleaning jobs) and to raise her difficult, “slow” daughter Angie.

Part of the problem with this revival is its scale. The original production featured a cast of seven, six of whom played Marlene’s guests and all the other characters. And although one of the threads of the play is economics – at its considerable heart, the sisters’ vividly contrasting outlooks stem partly from opposing financial circumstances – Churchill didn’t structure the play in that way solely because the Royal Court couldn’t afford the National’s cast of 18.

Doubling literally embodies the play’s themes. Back then, watching the same actor play, say, intrepid Victorian explorer Isabella Bird and then stay-at-home Joyce underlined the controlling idea of how women have and haven’t escaped their circumstances. Here, with every role inhabited by a single actor, Churchill’s thematic parallels and contrasts are invisible to audiences new to the work.

Then there’s the difficulty of the notoriously wide Lyttelton stage. Designer Ian MacNeil is most successful when he closes down the space, pushing the action down front in the restaurant scene or when creating a tiny basement hideaway (evocatively lit by Jack Knowles) for Angie and her younger friend Kit (nicely wide-eyed Ashna Rabheru). But although the beige-toned, curved-lined Top Girls office is perfectly in period, the space is implausibly wide. The cavernous areas for client interviews make little sense and rob the scenes of veracity.

More problematically still, many of those scenes are two-handers, often deftly comic, and since comedy loves small spaces both focus and laughs are lost. The play should be far funnier than it is here.

Even in the dinner scene, humour too often evaporates because the emphasis in the overlapping speeches, a technique Churchill invented, seems more on the dialogue’s rhythm than its content. Amanda Lawrence has a delicious air of asperity as Joan, who, allegedly, dressed as a man and passed herself off as Pope between 855 and 857 – but several other characterisations play out as one-dimensional. And with the actors talking much more than they are listening, it’s hard for audiences to focus on the characters’ stories that will later spread their resonances through the drama.

There’s the requisite 1980s sense of selfish, go-get-’em ambition in the office scenes that is satisfyingly undercut by Roisin Rae’s nicely judged appearance as the sensible-shoed wife who turns up to ask Marlene to give up the new job she believes her husband deserves. Ironically, it’s in these scenes that the play’s emotional landscape is revealed to centre around Marlene’s teenage niece Angie.

Top Girls star Amanda Lawrence: ‘This thing about being a mum and an actress – it’s big’

In a beautifully awkward, understated performance that marks her professional debut, Liv Hill affectingly switches between childlike enthusiasm over beloved Auntie Marlene and inarticulate rage with life at home with her mum, the long-suffering Joyce.

Black has been encouraged to make Joyce hugely understanding and sympathetic. Yet that overbalances everything. The climactic sisters’ scene should be engrossing because of its extreme emotional difficulty. But the range of emotions here is too narrow: it becomes a predictable fight between the “unselfish” sister and the “selfish” one.

As written, the fight should be devastating: there will be no going back from it. After all, it is about the frighteningly few opportunities open to a disadvantaged child by a society in which women embrace greed. Speaking to The Stage last year in celebration of Churchill’s 80th birthday, director Dominic Cooke singled out that climax as “one of the best scenes written in the past 70 years”.

No other playwright has so vividly dramatised the core feminist principle that the personal is political. Throughout the play, Churchill vividly dramatises the choices that women can and cannot make – and their repercussions. Although springing from the 1980s, those possibilities are still being debated.

Three years ago, Turner’s Donmar Warehouse revival of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer showed what a fine ear she possesses for nuance. Which makes it all the sadder that she hasn’t found the same touch with another timeless masterpiece.

Caryl Churchill at 80 – celebrating UK theatre’s ‘ultimate playwright’

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Verdict
Lyndsey Turner directs a lavish but underpowered revival of Caryl Churchill's masterpiece
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