Top Girls review – Churchill's study of bourgeois feminism gets an epic makeover

Lyttelton, London
With a boosted cast of 18, Lyndsey Turner’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s classic sometimes feels like three separate plays

What started as an economic necessity in 1982 soon became a thing of custom: that seven actors play the multiple roles in Caryl Churchill’s richly complex study of bourgeois feminism. Lyndsey Turner’s revival, however, boasts a cast of 18 and, as in her National production of Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire which put 62 actors on stage, I feel that added numbers don’t help. It’s still a wonderful piece but at times it seems as if we’re watching three separate plays.

The unifying factor is the go-getting Marlene, whom we first see hosting a dinner-party for five legendary women, then running a thriving employment agency and finally confronting her working-class sister. What one misses, when all the other characters are individually cast, are the intriguing historical resonances. When the same actor turns from the earthy Dull Gret of Brueghel’s painting into Marlene’s awkward supposed niece, Angie, a point is subliminally made about their similar quality of suppressed yearning. On the vast open spaces of Ian MacNeil’s set, some of the play’s subtleties also get lost.

I miss the intriguing historical resonances … Nadia Williams as Jeanine, and Jessica Brindle as Shona in Top Girls.
‘I miss the intriguing historical resonances’ … Nadia Williams as Jeanine, and Jessica Brindle as Shona in Top Girls. Photograph: Johan Persson

There’s a pivotal scene where the wife of the man overtaken by Marlene for the top job comes to argue her husband’s case: one’s instinctive horror at this piece of special pleading is confounded by Marlene’s brusque dismissal of the wife but here there is little sense of its devastating impact.

The best scene in this production is the climactic confrontation of Marlene and her stay-at-home-sister Joyce. A social chasm separates the two women but Katherine Kingsley suggests that, for all Marlene’s stylish sheen of success and embrace of Thatcherite individualism, she retains a vestigial Suffolk accent and hunger for acceptance.

Liv Hill as Angie, Charlotte Lucas as Win and Katherine Kingsley as Marlene.
Liv Hill as Angie, Charlotte Lucas as Win and Katherine Kingsley as Marlene. Photograph: Johan Persson

It is a strong performance, well matched by Lucy Black who plays Joyce not as a rural slattern but as a fiercely proud woman fighting for her own independence. Liv Hill is also touching as the frightened Angie and, in the tumultuous opening scene, there are striking performances from Siobhan Redmond as the pioneering explorer, Isabella Bird, and Amanda Lawrence as the transgressive Pope Joan. But, much as I love Churchill’s play, a big theatre and an epic cast do it few favours.

• At the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London, until 22 June


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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