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 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
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.
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.
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
comic moments, as when the Pope gets drunk enough to tell the story
of giving birth in mid-procession with some comic gusto.
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).
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
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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