Caryl Churchill’s strange and brilliant play Top Girls is as relevant as ever

The National’s revival of the 1982 play reminds us of the compromises that women make to survive in a world built for men. 

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Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls, newly revived at the National Theatre by director Lyndsey Turner, is a strange, brilliant thing. I loved it.

It starts with Marlene, an archetypal Eighties ballbuster, in gold lamé and shoulder pads like battleship hulls. Newly promoted in the Top Girls employment agency, she is hosting a dinner for Pope Joan, the explorer Isabella Bird, Japanese imperial courtesan Lady Nijo, Hell-raiding Flemish warrior Dull Gret and “patient Griselda” from the Canterbury Tales. They’ve all been worked over by the patriarchy, although few of them will admit it. Nijo brightly tells the rest it’s easier to give up girl babies than boys; Griselda explains that her husband was well within his rights to torment her. Even Pope Joan is brutally matter-of-fact about being stoned to death after unexpectedly giving birth in the middle of a procession through Rome.

The whole first scene is an assault on the senses. There is frequent (borderline irritating) overtalk, as the women compete to tell their stories. As they eat and drink, their clothes silently testify to the restrictions on their lives: Nijo’s huge swooping sleeves, Griselda’s knee-length hair, Isabella trussed up in leather stays. Only Gret – who got to do, rather than be – wears anything vaguely practical, lumbering around in a huge breastplate and sturdy shoes.

It’s the ambition of this play which strikes you, as much as its oddness. In the remaining scenes, we meet Angie – Marlene’s awkward, slow niece – and see exactly what Marlene had to leave behind to achieve her version of success. The National’s big budgets mean that actors don’t have to double up as the historical and 1980s women, but the parallels between them are still striking. Like Dull Gret, Marlene and her aspirational female colleagues have armour of their own: pastel blouses and white spike heels. (No surrended wife prairie dresses for them.) They counsel women not to reveal that they are engaged at job interviews: who wants to hire someone who will just leave to have a baby?

Marlene has succeeded only by rejecting the messy physicality of women’s lives, dumping an unwanted child on her mousy sister and failing to visit her elderly mother for years on end. No empathy, no caring labour, no domestic entanglements; this is the price of her triumph. She isn’t a Top Girl, she’s an Ersatz Alpha Male. (And when she beats her male colleague to a job, she is hated for it. After all, he has a family to support.)

Like I say, brace for oddness. Top Girls is a surreal, uneven, idiosyncratic piece of virtuosity. It has an hour and 40 minutes before the interval, and less than an hour – and only a single scene – after it, throwing the audience back on to the street bristling with questions. It is not linear. It isn’t always audible. But in its attempt to dramatise the compromises that women make to survive in a world built for men, it feels eternally relevant.

"Top Girls" is at the National Theatre until 22 June. Details here.

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.