Katherine Kingsley as Marlene
National Theatre 2019
Photo: Johan Persson
045 – Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill
The curtain rises on a restaurant table set for six. Marlene has arrived to host a dinner party to celebrate her promotion at work – she is now the Managing Director of a recruitment agency called Top Girls. The friends who arrive to celebrate with her are not colleagues from her office or even from her personal life – they are female figures of some renown from different ages of history. So begins one of the most extraordinary and brilliant scenes of theatre ever conceived, in which six women from across history share their triumphs and challenges, loves and losses, over dinner and several bottles of Frascati.
This is the first act of Caryl Churchill’s modern classic, Top Girls, which premiered at the Royal Court in 1982 and has been revived many times since. Although the play reflected some of the political and social concerns of Britain at the time that it was written in the early 1980s, it is revived and studied on education curricula not just for its extraordinary opening scene, but for its innovative structure and for its enduring questions about the opportunities, and opportunity costs, for women who may seek to be ‘top girls’.
My expert guest in this episode is Professor Elaine Aston, who also joined me in episode 30 to talk about Caryl Churchill’s play Escaped Alone.
The 2019 National Theatre production of Top Girls is available to watch here on NT at Home.
Elaine Aston is a Professor at the Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Arts at Lancaster University, and the author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill which she has updated in three editions published by Northcote House, as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill and the Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights from Cambridge University Press. Elaine is acclaimed for her work on theatre research and feminism, publishing several books on Feminist Theatre Practice, and currently serves as the President of the International Federation for Theatre Research.
Elaine recommended Posh by Laura Wade
Tyrell William’s award-winning, debut play Red Pitch is set on an inner-city football pitch in South London. It is a coming-of-age story, with teenage boys fighting to believe in their dreams, and to find a way up, and perhaps out, of their changing community. The play premiered at the Bush Theatre in London in February 2002, winning several awards, and is currently enjoying a sell-out revival at the Bush.
Tyrell Williams, and the show’s director, Daniel Bailey, join me to explore this joyful and poignant new play.
Photo by Helen Murray.
Martin McDonagh’s 2004 play The Pillowman is an unsettling mix of gruesome fairy tales, child abuse, and murder, overlaid with McDonagh’s signature black humour. McDonagh’s blend of extreme violence and ironic comedy divides opinion, although the popularity of the current revival of the play in London’s West End is testimony to its enduring fascination.
I am joined in this episode by Professor Eamonn Jordan, to help us come to terms with the impact and intent of McDonagh’s work.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo and Franca Rame is both an hilarious farce and a biting satire. Written in 1970 as an “act of intervention” in response to the unexplained death of a prisoner in police custody in Milan, it became a huge global hit.
An acclaimed new adaptation that updates the setting and scandal to modern-day Britain is currently playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and I’m delighted to be joined by its writer, Tom Basden, and the director, Daniel Raggett, to talk about their adaptation and the enduring relevance of Fo’s original.