Top Girls at the National Theatre: ‘structurally incongruous’ and ‘oddly picaresque’

While sipping a drink during the interval of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, I realized I was still waiting for the show to begin. Lyndsey Turner’s new production for the National Theatre put me in mind of John Keats’s reluctance to describe how poems mean. He claims in a letter to Fanny Braun: 

A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.

Poetry may, but drama does not. The latter is a narrative, rather than lyric, form, and the suspension in which the audience exists when the action opens must be of limited duration. A story, of sorts, must coalesce, and characters emerge. Despite several strong performances, Churchill’s structurally incongruous work feels like three plays welded together. None are overly successful. 

The curtain rises on a dinner party. It is 1981 and Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) is celebrating her promotion to Managing Director of the Top Girls Employment Agency. Her guests are a motley crew. Victorian traveller Isabella Bird (Siobhán Redmond) competes for conversational dominance with thirteenth-century Buddhist nun Lady Nijo (Wendy Kweh). Pope Joan (Amanda Lawrence), the apocryphal female pontiff reigning from 855-858, soon joins the party, as does Flemish folkloric character, Dull Gret (Ashley McGuire), the subject of a notable painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Patient Griselda (Lucy Ellison), who appears in both Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is fashionably late. The ladies toast Marlene’s success, and, as they become progressively drunker, discuss their varied and traumatic experiences, returning again and again to lost or absent children. Following the dinner, the action alternates between Marlene’s former home in Ipswich, where her sister and niece still live, and the Top Girls agency. The past haunts both the sleek office and the run-down family house. 

‘The past haunts both the sleek office and the run-down family house.’ The cast of Top Girls at the National Theatre.

The play has an oddly picaresque quality. Only three characters appear in more than one of the show’s four parts, which are themselves presented in three distinct styles: the surrealist dinner party with historical guests, a light satire of ‘80s materialism and corporate culture, and gritty kitchen sink drama (featuring Angry Middle-Aged Women, rather than Angry Young Men). Character development is virtually non-existent in the first act. We know as much about peripheral figures as we do principals, and the disconnected nature of the scenes mean that strong performances have little room to develop. Lawrence is excellent as Pope Joan, a woman whose immersion in ecclesiastical life since the age of twelve alienates her from both femininity and emotion. Her description of her death by stoning is shockingly dispassionate. Likewise, McGuire gives an entrancing description of battle in a Bruegelian Hell. With less than thirty lines, however, her character is like a spark that flares, but never catches fire. Liv Hill’s Angie manages to figure in multiple parts, and consequently build a convincing portrait of awkward adolescence. 

The ‘excellent’ Amanda Lawrence as Pope Joan.

The structure further unbalances the play. The first act is ninety minutes long, the second only forty, and tasked to provide the backstory for all the preceding action. From the dialogue exchanged before the interval, Churchill shears descriptive information. Characters simply exist in proximity, their relationships unclear. The audience remains suspended, the story stubbornly embryonic. The crammed second act reveals further lost children, family animosity, and intense class conflict. If the play did not in fact date from the 1980s, I would have assumed Marlene’s late-breaking declaration, “I don’t believe in the working class!” was a craven grasp at topicality in our Brexit-riven age. 

As usual, the National has spared no expense on set design and costume, and I’ll not deny that I felt a thrill when sixteen actresses took their bows on the Lyttelton stage. But recent productions, like the Vaudeville Theatre’s staging of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia, have proven that a female cast and satisfying, cohesive narrative are not mutually exclusive. To be in the lake is not enough; these Top Girls deserve better prospects.

2.5/5

Top Girls is at the National Theatre until the 22nd June, 2019.

Production photographs: Johan Persson.


Sarah Gibbs is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in English Literature at University College London (UCL). Her writing has appeared in Descant, Filling Station, and Novelty magazines.

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