Wednesday 17 April 2019

Top Girls at the National, or, A Baffling Reputation

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 13th April 2019.

This was my fourth Caryl Churchill play. I didn't have high hopes in advance as none of the other three (Drunk Enough to Say I Love You (Royal Court), Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Here We Go (both NT)) did much for me. But I was curious to see this particular play on account of its reputation as a classic. Perhaps it was all more daring back in 1982.

The story concerns Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) who some years back fled/escaped her Suffolk home and has built a successful career in London and abroad, ultimately achieving a senior management position in the Top Girls recruitment agency. The fantastical, apparently much famed, Act 1 sees her celebrating her promotion over dinner with an eclectic selection of historical and fictional women. Act 2 Scene 2 sees her and her associates in action at the agency. Act 2 Scene 1 and Act 3 take us to Suffolk.

I won't spoil the central plot revelation for any reader who hasn't seen it. All I will say is that in this production it wasn't much of a revelation. It's so overly telegraphed via the fantasy of Act 1 and the first Suffolk scene that it neither surprised nor shocked me when finally revealed. Some seemed to find Act 1 in itself very funny. There are moments of witty intervention or physical comedy, but much of it is just weird rather than funny. Overall I found it hard to take the whole thing seriously, it certainly failed to make me emotionally invest in the collective on stage, and it goes on too long. Gradually too it resorts to familiar rather tired swearing and sexual innuendo.

I also found it hard to make out what Churchill's aims with the play were. It clearly isn't to tell a straightforward character focused narrative. It ends up lecturing a fair bit about the plight of women but it didn't seem to me to have anything new to say about this (maybe as already noted what it has to say was more provocative in 1982) and because I found much of the lecture divorced from emotional engagement with the characters I was alternately bored and irritated. Possibly Churchill intends, eventually, to make the viewer sympathise with Marlene, but she's so unpleasantly written in the first two scenes she appears in that it failed to make me do so. The publicity has made much of the play as a commentary on Thatcher's Britain. As far as I could see this was largely confined to the final scene and Marlene's argument with her sister Joyce (Lucy Black). This consists of them shouting over each other with various claims about British politics and society which again may have been new to audiences in 1982 but are stale and familiar in 2019. It also seems that new plays in 1982 were already bedevilled with problems with endings - I suspect the one here is meant to chill the viewer, I'm afraid my eyebrow may have gone up in scepticism.

Actually the character I most empathised with and would like to have known more about was Joyce. Why does she stay? How did she end up getting married? What has she had to put up with all these years because of her decisions? It's in the moments when she's still, silent, alone in Act 3 that the play finds something really powerful.

The Lyttelton has frequently baffled creative teams in the Rufus Norris era. Director Lyndsey Turner and designer Ian MacNeil fare better than some. They shrink the large stage on which the play would have been lost a la the NT's production of Waste. But they don't do so in a way that is completely successful in making the unused space vanish from the viewer's mind - it feels effortful. I'd also be interested to know if the sounds of dogs in Act 3 are specified in the script - they feel intrusive, an overly deliberate attempt to persuade us that we really are in rural Suffolk - complete stillness as Joyce gazes out into the night would have been more effective.

The programme includes a note explaining that the play is usually performed with doubling but that Churchill intended it to be given by an ensemble of 16 women, and that this is the first time it has been so performed. I'm not convinced the play benefits from this largess. It seems rather a waste of actresses of the talent of Siobhan Redmond and Amanda Lawrence to confine them to a bare fifty minutes at the start. I have a suspicion that doubling might enable clearer links to be drawn between the fantasy scene and the modern employment agency - perhaps even between the fantasy scene and the Suffolk farm house - which might clarify the arguments. As it is, we don't see enough of nearly all of the characters to really engage with them.

The large cast do their very best with an unwieldy play. Liv Hill in her professional debut makes a masterful job of the not altogether likeable Angie, and I hope to see more of her. I was interested to discover that I'd seen Lucy Black in 3 Winters (NT) and The York Realist (Donmar) as part of two very fine ensembles. Here she gives much needed emotional weight. I've admired Kingsley in other roles (particularly as Ilona in the Menier's She Loves Me) but on this occasion I was less convinced. Maybe it's the piece or the direction, but it all felt a bit too much on one level - neither dominating enough in the recruitment agency, nor carrying sufficient emotional punch in Act 3. Of the dinner party women Redmond, Lawrence and Wendy Kweh's Lady Nijo are especially strongly done.

This performance did not make me a Churchill convert, or convince me that this play deserves its classic status. Others in the audience clearly got much more out of it, but apart from wanting to know more about Joyce, it left me largely cold and unengaged.


Lisa Hirsch said...

I've also seen four of her plays, I think, with Top Girls overlapping with your four. I have mostly liked her. The others I've seen or read are Serious Money, Cloud Nine (seen twice and possibly her most famous play), and Mad Forest, which is a harrowing trip to Romania. If you can bear to see another of hers, I'd recommend Cloud Nine and Mad Forest.

Finn Pollard said...

Interested as always to hear your thoughts. I'll see (nearly) anything once - unless it's obviously labelled as horror or immersive!

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