“Gender performativity in all its contradictory glory”
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a perfect skewering of Thatcherism and individualism that to this day reverberates through school text books, university lecture halls and theatres worldwide. But it’s Lyndsey Turner’s National Theatre revival – shiny, attitude-packed, ominous and shoulder padded to the rafters – which convinced me that it’s as engaging as it is important, a modern classic with humanity as capacious as its big ‘P’ politics.
Marlene, the central character, is at once formidable and magnetic. Katherine Kingsley puts on a detailed study of gender performativity in all its contradictory glory: she is master of the power strut in her office, she provides support to her fellow women at a drunken dinner party, and later she’s a little girl beseeching her big sister to make up with her. Kingsley imbues her with sass and utilises many a perfectly-timed eye roll.
The clash between Marlene and her sister Joyce is played to perfection. Marlene is a go-getter Thatcherite who doesn’t mind seeing life’s weaker specimens tossed aside, yet it’s Joyce who comes out looking the stronger. Lucy Black plays her with a sturdy resilience that hints at a life of hardship and a kind soul behind the abrupt language. Liv Hill is unforgettable as Angie, with all the energy of a puppy and a restless gaze that belies a deep well of imagination. Her relationship with her adored aunt Marlene, who is too shiny and pristine to want to touch her, is heart-breaking.
Amanda Lawrence is a stand-out of the surreal dinner scene, in which historical figures spout their life stories while growing steadily sozzled. In the role of Pope Joan, she ups the comedy with her pontificating and, later, with a well-executed drunken stumble.
They are supported by a strong cast (and a large one, with as many actors as there are characters, rather than any doubling up as in previous productions). It’s a particular thrill to see the swarm of swaggering, sashaying women invade the stage in the Top Girls recruitment office. There’s a cold efficiency and cut-throat ambition that is at once magnificent – marking the winds of change for career-orientated women – and terrifying in its lack of kindness.
Ian Macneil’s set takes us from the grandeur of the dream restaurant to the diminutive basement where Angie hides, to the sweeping sleekness of the recruitment office. During the former, we are treated to many a painterly tableau. Merle Hensel’s costumes are utterly watchable in their own right. Special kudos must go to Marlene’s cinched sequined cocktail dress in the dinner sequence, which manages to look as of-its-time and fantastical as all the other historical outfits.
If I had a small gripe (and small it would be), it’s that the restaurant scene doesn’t always pull off Churchill‘s overlapping dialogue. The dinner guests often seem to respond a little late or in a manner that doesn’t quite fit, so that the conversation jars in places it shouldn’t.
Top Girls throws open so many questions about feminism, individualism and the intersectionality between gender and class. Watched from a 2019 perspective in which we are still trying to reconcile femininity, sex and gender – and frequently getting it wrong – it’s sobering to see Marlene and Joyce grappling with the same contradictions. Gripping and gorgeous, Turner’s Top Girls is top-notch.
Review by Laura Foulger