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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Top Girls
Lyttelton Theatre Spring-Summer 2019

Hailed as exciting and ground-breaking at its appearance in 1982, Caryl Churchill's play has not aged well, and even a spare-no-expense production cannot fully hide its limitations.

Top Girls is actually two separate plays very tangentially connected. The shorter first act is a fantasy, as a modern (i.e. 1982-era) woman hosts a dinner for women drawn from history (a thirteenth-century Japanese concubine, a Victorian explorer) and myth (the supposed female Pope, the legendary Patient Griselda, the woman in a Bruegel painting).

While getting drunk they take turns telling their stories, finding a common bond in rebellion against traditional women's roles.

The longer second play is realistic and set in the present, where we find the hostess from the first act (the only crossover character) working in a business environment. Scenes set at work show her success in navigating this high-pressure world, while more domestic scenes show the self-hardening decisions she had to make to get there.

Almost all previous productions of Top Girls have tied the two stories together by doubling roles, with the same actors in each half. In a programme note here, Caryl Churchill writes that she always envisioned a one-role-per-woman staging but that economic limitations of the first production forced doubling, which then set a precedent.

She acknowledges that doubling might also have generated some resonances between the two stories, an actor's earlier role colouring her later one – and she is right. With separate casts for the two halves a lot of texture is lost, leading one to wonder if it was ever there to begin with, or only an audience projection.

Certainly the now self-contained first act seems thin and all-but-pointless. The performers are each given a single note to play – the egotistical Victorian woman keeps butting in to bring the spotlight back to her, the Pope spouts homilies, Dull Gret lives up to her name by laconically scoffing down her food – and generally they take turns talking at rather than to each other.

Things only come alive at a few comic moments, as when the Pope gets drunk enough to tell the story of giving birth in mid-procession with some comic gusto.

Meanwhile the modern scenes involving the successful businesswoman and her country-mouse sister lapse into a familiar plot perhaps more often seen between brothers – who was right, the one who selfishly abandoned a dead-end life to succeed or the one who stayed out of responsibility and stagnated? (c.f. Arthur Miller's The Price).

A touch of topicality – you can guess which one abruptly starts praising and echoing Margaret Thatcher – only threatens to relegate the play to dated period piece.

Playing what amount to seriously-intended caricatures, no one in the first act is given much opportunity to shine, though Amanda Lawrence as Pope Joan and Wendy Kweh as the concubine bring some comic energy to their moments.

Similarly, all the supporting roles in the modern scenes are conceived as types – the junior members of the firm aiming to emulate their colleague's success and a string of job candidates with different one-note personalities.

Only three characters really allow for some acting opportunities. Katherine Kingsley keeps the successful sister's energy and determination attractive even when a not-all-that-surprising surprise secret is revealed. But when the playwright turns against the woman by making her a Thatcherite (even more a guaranteed villain label then than now) the actress must struggle to hold on to any audience sympathy.

Lucy Black shows us the stay-at-home sister's virtue from her first appearance, and then slowly lets us discover the woman's suppressed anger. And Liv Hill makes an admirable professional debut as the daughter/niece torn between her two role models, though the underwritten character is left with her potentially touching story unresolved.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Top Girls - National Theatre 2019
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