I went to see Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at Trafalgar Studios a few weeks ago. It’s a cleverly structured, lucid and powerful play, first staged in 1982, shortly after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.
It begins with an imaginative scene set in a restaurant. Six women gather to celebrate the main character, Marlene (Suranne Jones)’s promotion to managing director of ‘Top Girls’, an employment agency. The other women are all from different historical eras: Dull Gret (Olivia Poulet), Lady Nijo (Catherine McCormack), Isabella Bird (Stella Gonet), Lady Griselda (Laura Elphinstone), and Joan of Arc (Lucy Briers). They tell stories about the hardships they have been through, as well as their achievements. They get drunk and raucous, and don’t listen very attentively: there’s a lot of interruption and talking over each other.
The action then moves to the garden of a contemporary rural house. A teenage girl, Angie (Olivia Poulet), and her younger friend Kit (Lisa Kerr) are playing together. Angie tells Kit she’s going to go away, to London, to visit her aunt Marlene. She changes into a floral dress. Angie then turns up at ‘Top Girls’, where Marlene works with her colleagues Win (Catherine McCormack) and Nell (Laura Elphinstone). Marlene is not exactly thrilled to see her. Angie adores her aunt: she says that the day Marlene last visited her and her mother, Joyce, was the best day of her life. The scene ends with Marlene telling Win that Angie is stupid, and that there is no hope for her.
The final scene jumps back in time to the previous year, when Marlene visits Angie and Joyce. She gives Angie the floral dress as a present. Political and class issues previously hinted at in the Top Girls office are brought out into the open. Marlene voices her support for Thatcher; Joyce is horrified by this. It’s also revealed (*spoiler alert*) that Marlene is Angie’s real mother: Marlene left her with Joyce in Norfolk so that she could go and pursue her career in the city. The play ends with Angie coming downstairs, possibly sleepwalking. Marlene tries to speak to her, but Angie just repeats the word ‘frightening.’
The eighties, and the class divide, were well evoked through costumes. Marlene, Win and Nell all wore the latest power-dressing fashions. Joyce’s clothes and kitchen were in shades of beige, brown and orange, suggesting that there was no progression in her world from seventies’ styles. And yet, although the sets and costumes were realistic enough, I nevertheless felt that there was a sort of coldness about them.
Whether intentional or not, though, this sort of starkness around the edges only helped to reinforce the fact that Top Girls is not meant to be the kind of story- and character-based play in which you become immersed: it’s meant to be alienating and thought-provoking. The first scene, after all, is about as unrealistic as they come; and the fact that the seven actresses (except Suranne Jones) play multiple roles suggests that the characters are meant to be seen more as illustrations of a particular message than as individual people. Saying that, Churchill (and/or the actresses and director, Max Stafford-Clarke) manages to encourage empathy as well as social and political commentary. All of the performances were engaging and convincing, so that I did worry for Angie, and was fascinated, but ultimately deeply unsettled, by Marlene’s single-minded self-interest.
In the introduction to my copy of the play text, it is noted that no woman playwright is included in the 1982 edition of Benedict Nightingale’s An Introduction to 50 Modern British Plays. Only one is featured in Methuen’s 1986 Landmarks of Contemporary British Drama – Caryl Churchill, for Top Girls. It is telling that it took an overtly political play, rather than one exploring domestic or psychological worlds, to break into the history books. Thankfully it is also a play that questions the alarming ramifications of defining success and emancipation for women as individual achievement in traditionally male-dominated workplaces. Churchill condemns such success as meaningless if it means that those who do not fit into this mould are discarded along the way. She knows that feminism is about more than women’s rights; it is essentially about human rights; and that many people would do well to realise this. It’s a point that is still frighteningly relevant today.