This tremendous 1983 play by Caryl Churchill has extraordinary breadth – and for this high-gloss revival, Lyndsey Turner gives it a widescreen treatment to match. It fills the Lyttelton’s big stage in real style, and if it sometimes dissipates a little of the dialogue’s snap and crackle, it also gives the production a shrewd and shiny modernity. That’s not to say that it’s been stripped of its the period setting. We’re still firmly in Thatcher’s Britain, the age of power suits, spike heels and helmet hair, of naked ambition and ruthless individualism.
The Iron Lady was our first female prime minister, yet she loathed feminism. And now, with second-, third- and fourth-wave feminists often at odds, with feminism thoroughly mainstream and yet with gender inequality still rife, with MeToo and TimesUp redefining the cultural landscape, and with body-image issues and the pornification of society more virulent than ever thanks to the digital revolution, there are still plenty of issues and contradictions to consider. So it seems apt to examine Churchill’s play not just as a signpost to where we were headed, but as a snapshot of where we’ve ended up. Turner’s staging achieves this by applying a clear, gleaming, modern lens, which ensures that it looks at once up-to-the-minute and historically accurate. It is both a window into the past, and a mirror to the present. It also – for the first time ever, as far as Churchill herself is aware – features a complete cast of 18, with no doubling. Some commentators have mourned the dilution of the various parallels between characters that a more economical casting suggested. But as Churchill points out, that’s not the way the play was conceived. She envisioned 18 individual women. The now-traditional doubling-up was simply a money-saving strategy employed by producers. Besides, to see the stage filled with such a large, triumphantly talented all-female company in itself feels like a feminist fillip.
We begin, in the famous first scene, in a London restaurant, where flourishing go-getter Marlene (Katherine Kingsley, sporting a spectacular pair of gold shoulder pads) is holding a dinner to celebrate her promotion to managing director of the Top Girls employment agency. Ian MacNeil’s cinematic set glides and glimmers, its backdrop of tasteful commercial art like a stormy teal seascape. But this party is no ordinary blowout: it’s a surreal, dreamlike sequence in which all her guests are boundary-busting women from history and art. Isabella Bird (Siobhan Redmond) is a vigorous Victorian explorer. Lady Nijo (Wendy Kweh) is a Japanese imperial concubine and diarist. Dull Gret (Ashley McGuire) and Patient Griselda (Lucy Elliinson) both spring from folklore, with Gret featuring in the paintings of Bruegel and Griselda in Boccaccio’s "Decameron." And Pope Joan is an apocryphal figure reputed to have been a secretly female potentate during the Middle Ages.
It’s a stunning, theatrically audacious opening, playful and affecting, as the women’s conversation roves over their professional and emotional lives, so ebullient that their voices compete and overlap while allegiances are made and the Frascati flows. The tension between family life, love, social expectation, and personal fulfilment and ambition is writ large and colourful here. And then, abruptly, the set contracts like a camera’s aperture, and we iris in on a less colourful but just as demanding reality. Marlene and her team interview candidates for the agency’s books, a process that suggests exploitation as much as opportunity. And back in rural Suffolk, the place where Marlene grew up and that she couldn’t wait to leave, her sister Joyce (Lucy Black) and Joyce’s daughter Angie (Liv Hill) are trapped in a life of much more limited horizons.
That domestic set-up is not, as it turns out, quite what it appears, and the family dynamic is troubled and deeply poignant. Hill’s Angie, who has a darkly vivid imagination and no aptitude for school, longs for a taste of Marlene’s London whirlwind, and Black, who ekes an income from three cleaning jobs, is both discreetly jealous and quietly contemptuous of her more glamorous sister. Marlene has also left behind the leftwing politics she grew up with to embrace Thatcherism, while Joyce flinches from her callous dismissal of anyone vulnerable, anyone “stupid, lazy or frightened." It is a chilling confrontation with a dangerous insularity that echoes resoundingly all the way down to current Conservative austerity and cruel, bone-headed welfare reforms. And more, the play addresses our ongoing conversation with what it really means to hold power – soft or hard – and what it means to be shut out from it. Top Girls is a landmark drama of serious brilliance. This production delivers it to us as slick, bright and glittering as freshly spilt blood.