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Stage Review: Top Girls at the National Theatre

TOP GIRLS by Churchill, , Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - Lyndsey Turner, Set Designer - Ian MacNeill, Costume Designer - Merle Hensel, Lighting - Jack Knowles, The National Theatre, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson/ - Credit: Archant

Top Girls is a play that fails the test of time, writes TIM WALKER.

The National Theatre rightly sees that it has a responsibility to keep alive old and more modern classics and that’s presumably why it has chosen to revive Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.

When it was first presented almost 40 years ago, it was understandably seen, with its all-female cast and overtly critical take on the values of Margaret Thatcher, as innovative and ground-breaking theatre. Lyndsey Turner’s revival is an earnest and faithful affair that is capably performed by a cast of almost 20 women, but it serves only to emphasise that the work has failed the greatest of all the tests a true classic must face – and that’s time.

Churchill is still going strong at the age of 80, which no doubt explains why no one has had the temerity to update the work, but, oh my goodness, how much that temerity was needed. This is a play that looks ahead to what Marlene sees as the ‘stupendous’ 1980s, but, with the benefit of hindsight, so much of what it has to say now seems unstartling, if not actually clichéd and boring. Even the all-female cast – considered to be making such a bold statement when it was first performed at the Royal Court in 1982 – seems like an unnecessary gimmick.

Admittedly, there are still some flashes of genius – the entertaining dinner party that starts it off, for instance, where the high-flying Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) hosts a selection of great women from history and Amanda Lawrence steals the whole scene with her spirited take on Pope Joan, the woman who allegedly reigned as pope, disguised as a man, for a few years during the Middle Ages.

The Top Girls employment agency, where Marlene is fighting her way to the top in a man’s world, is beautifully realised by the designer Ian MacNeil, and there is a great contrast when she heads off to the country and the rustic simplicity of the home of her under-achieving sister Joyce (Lucy Black), who is struggling to cope with her ‘slow’ daughter Angie (Liv Hill).

The National Theatre throws everything it’s got at this production and money seems to have been no object, but all the fuss and the huge Lyttelton stage serve only to compound this revival’s problems and makes it impossible for any of the characters – not even Marlene – to achieve the sort of definition that makes it possible to cut through as a human being.

Two and half hours on, I emerged from it all wondering, somewhat sacrilegiously, if Churchill isn’t perhaps the most over-rated playwright of all time. Certainly this play would have done a lot better to have remained a fond memory, rather than to have come charging back into our lives, like a long-lost acquaintance who has aged badly and not kept pace with our own mental development in the intervening years.