Review: Top Girls, National Theatre

Caryl Churchill’s superb Top Girls receives a luxurious but clear-sighted production from Lyndsey Turner at the National Theatre

“They’re waiting for me to turn into the little woman”

Written by a woman and directed by a woman, the opening night of an all-female play couldn’t have been better timed for the National Theatre. But while this doesn’t negate the concerns raised in the too-male-heavy partial season announcement from last week, it does frame them – and the questions it provokes – in a larger context. After all, Lyndsey Turner’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is the first not to use double-casting, which means it boasts a company of 18 women – more of this please.

It helps that they are performing such a bravura piece of writing. Churchill’s 1982 play is a shrewd and startling affair which has lost none of its impact here as it gives women their voices in ways which haven’t always (and in some ways still don’t) been encouraged. From historical characters (both real and imagined) to contemporary families (it may be set in the 80s but there’s nothing dated about what is happening here), we are dared to listen.

Sometimes it can be a bit of a challenge. The first scene in particular is full of overlapping dialogue as centuries of repressed history spill forth but Turner has calibrated her cast so very well. The likes of Siobhán Redmond, Amanda Lawrence and Wendy Kweh know how to play with dynamics, tapping into Churchill’s rhythms which feel collaborative rather than competitive as they unfurl a tapestry of experience rarely mentioned in the history books. 

And as later scenes focus in on the fiercely ambitious Marlene, the scope is no less momentous as the political intertwines with the intensely personal, the rise of the cult of the individual laid bare in all its blinkered certainty. Katherine Kingsley’s Marlene is hypnotically compelling and she is supported by excellent work by Lucy Black and Liv Hill (a hugely impressive debut) as her sister and niece who thrash out notions of ambition and sacrifice through a tangled familial lens.

Ian MacNeil’s design expertly toys with the dimensions of the Lyttelton, forcing perspective here, breaking down boundaries there, shrinking down worlds to their very essence, supported by Jack Knowles’ assured lighting choices. There’s no doubting that Top Girls is an arresting evening, its tonal shifts disrupt, its delivery can disarm but in this production, its intelligence is as pin-sharp as ever, its questioning as pertinent to a society yet to reckon fully with its message.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Top Girls is booking at the National Theatre until 22nd June

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