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
Arthur Miller’s breakthrough play All My Sons is both a searing family tragedy and an exploration of the moral challenges that Miller believed were inherent in the American Dream. Douglas Rintoul has recently directed a wonderful production of this devastating play at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch.
It is 1959 and Russ and Bev have sold their 3-bedroom bungalow in the all-white neighbourhood of Clybourne Park in Chicago to a “coloured family”. The sale sparks heated debate between neighbours in Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Clybourne Park. Oliver Kaderbhai, director of the current revival at the Park Theatre in London, joins me to discuss this provocative and corruscatingly funny play.
Brian Friel’s play Faith Healer is a literary and theatrical masterpiece, acclaimed for the beauty of its language, its innovative form, and the bathetic yet tragic tale of its eponymous character and those tethered to his misfortunes. My guest, Joe Dowling, directed the seminal producation at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1980 and recently returned there to revive the play more than 40 years later.