The Theatreguide.London Review
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
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
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
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.
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