One of the great things about Caryl Churchill is her use of history to explore the present and anticipate the future. This can be seen in her brilliant 1982 play Top Girls now getting a timely revival at the National Theatre— carrying us from a timeless zone to the 1980s to something much like the present, the work engages with issues of gender, and tackles a bourgeois interpretation of feminism which had become prevalent under Thatcher. Lyndsey Turner’s refreshing production asks important questions today about the horizon’s of Britain’s women, and calls on the living to act on behalf of our historic women.

In the audacious opening gambit, Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) celebrates her promotion to managing director at Top Girls employment agency with a boozy dinner party, inviting various women from history she considers to be her symbolic peers— including Pope Joan rumoured to have held the papacy (strongly performed by Amanda Lawrence) and Dull Gret (Ashley McGuire) from the Brueghel painting. With the rise of Thatcher and a spirit of optimism consuming the country, Marlene is certain that the future belongs to women like her.

But as ever with Churchill, humour spearheads you to darkness. The surreal first act gives way (as Ian MacNeil’s restaurant set design shrinks away into the distance) to the latter half of the play’s kitchen sink-style scenes exploring Marlene’s professional and personal life. We learn that Marlene left home when she was 17, leaving her illegitimate baby, Angie, to her working-class sister.

‘If you want anything done’, famously remarked Margaret Thatcher, ‘ask a woman’. Except much like Thatcher, who loathed feminism, the women in Top Girls take no pride in presenting themselves as women. In the first act, the characters pit masculinity against feminine wiles and fragility. As Joan says, impatient with Lady Nijo’s performative modesty and tears, ‘I didn’t live a woman’s life. I don’t understand it.’ The same can be said for the women in the rest of the work, who play a man’s game of who can be the most callous and unemotional. ‘Our Marlene’s got far more balls than Howard and that’s that’, we’re told after Marlene takes a male colleague’s job.

Katherine Kingsley – Marlene, Naomi Yang Jeanne in Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. Photographer Johan Persson

This revival of Top Girls points towards the smokescreen success of Conservative women leaders— then Thatcher, and now May, who put the interests of the privileged at heart and adhere to the sexist status quo. The conservative party has a history of female leaders, yes, but feminist ones? Not yet.

Katherine Kingsley superbly captures the hard-nosed, white steely woman disproving the leftie nonsense about women needing special treatment. She captures Marlene’s more authentic side too— which shows us that the real villain is not her or the other women, but the bourgeois feminist enterprise. Despite her embrace of Thatcherite individualism and steely ways, she hungers for love and acceptance. The play is about the fine gradations of class, sex and culture within a suffocating system.

Ian MacNeil’s set design sweeps us from epic vast open spaces to scenes of intimacy and subtlety. Expertly acted by a strong ensemble cast (in particular Liv Hill who tremendously acts the frightened Angie), the play leaves you wondering about the Marlenes of today. Have things actually changed for women since the play was written?

Traditionally, out of economic necessity, actresses have doubled and trebled roles from the surreal first act to the latter half. There’s something gloriously celebratory about seeing each actress playing only one role in this production, and watching the large cast of women all take bows at the end— 18 women, as Churchill originally intended. At a time when the National has been under fire for announcing a season entirely written by men, Top Girls is the perfect rebuttal.

Words by Molly Moss

Top Girls is showing at the National Theatre sporadically until July 20th. For more information on dates and tickets, visit National Theatre.

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