Promotional material for Top Girls focuses heavily on a dinner, convened by a newly promoted power dressing 80s’ executive Marlene, where the guests are all women from history. This celebration takes up most of the first act. The arrival of a Japanese Buddhist nun from c.1300, a Victorian explorer and 9th century apocryphal female pope in a smart London restaurant is certainly arresting. The women compete to tell stories of lives heightened by adventure but scarred by loss.  The writing of the first act, with its dialogue of constant interruption, is clever but possibly a matter of style over substance. It is clearly an impressive feat for the actors to navigate and gives the restaurant scene the sense of an ego-driven male boardroom, writes Katie Kelly.  

For me, however, discombobulation turned to alienation and I lost interest in all but the figure of Dull Gret (1561). She attracted attention firstly though her silence and then the powerful way she transformed from clownish presence to passionate warrior and combined a heart-rending story of trauma and loss with anger and armour. After a patient wait she steals the show.

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/

The loss of children is returned to again and again in the historic stories. The reason for this, and lead character Marlene’s discomfort with it, becomes slowly apparent as the play moves from restaurant to recruitment agency’s swanky office and then the intimacy of a family kitchen. A story of modern sacrifice unfolds, and the audience ponders the true cost, both to herself and others, of Marlene’s high-flying career. She is a poster girl for the supposed opportunity created in Thatcher’s Britain, her family for those who were left behind. 

Though not written as a period piece, the 80s setting now feels like one. There are many resonances but perhaps the deepest was watching Marlene and her sister, who has stayed behind to be the family carer while Marlene headed off to make her fortune, descend into seemingly irreconcilable separation over politics, something that so many families and friendships have experienced in recent heated political times. 

Caryl Churchill is known for economical staging, but no expense has been spared here. This is a sumptuous production with memorable sets and a large cast where no actors duplicate any parts. The ideas are interesting, the timing relevant – The play opened in a week where our government was in chaos and the gender pay gap was reported to have widened. The shoulder pads and language of the 80s’ executives may be occasionally and noticeably ‘of their time’ but the issues seem depressingly similar. 

Although the play was full of clever ideas, it felt much more absorbing when it moved away from the gimmicky restaurant scene and the overly shiny office to the two sisters and a daughter, played brilliantly by Liv Hill, sitting together around the kitchen table, in pain.

Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 until 22nd June. Times: Mon – Sat. 7.30pm;  Wed & Sat matinees 2.15pm. Admission: £15 – £68. Phone: 0207 4542 3000

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos: Johan Persson