Top Girls (1982) overview
Written by Caryl Churchill in 1982, Top Girls was one of the first plays to engage directly with Thatcherism. The play focusses on the character of Marlene, the head of a London employment agency, and explores the compromises that she has had to make to achieve her hugely successful career.
The opening scene is also the play’s most famous. Marlene hosts a dinner party for a group of famous women from history, all of whom have had to give up some vital piece of themselves along the way. The guests include Pope Joan, who famously disguised herself as a man, the explorer Isabella Bird, Dull Gret, Lady Nijo (the Japanese courtesan) and Patient Griselda, the wife from Chaucer’s The Clerk's Tale.
The structure of the play is non-linear and collage-like. The first scene of Act 2 depicts two girls, Angie and Kit, at play. Angie is volatile and argumentative, and at one point says that she is going to kill her mother, Marlene’s sister Joyce. The girls discuss sex, though this is something they have no experience of yet.
In the next scene the action shifts to the Top Girls employment agency and we see Marlene at work, competing and interacting with her male contemporaries.
Born into poverty, Marlene has had to fight her way to the top and give up things along the way. She states: ‘I don't believe in class; anyone can do anything if they've got what it takes’.
According to Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington, Top Girls is ‘a work of art rather than a social tract; and it acquired a real emotional momentum in the final act’ (State of the Nation, 2007). It is in this scene, which takes place a year before the office scene, that it is revealed that Angie is actually Marlene’s daughter, and that in her eyes the girl is ‘stupid, lazy and frightened’.
In her aggressive individualism Marlene is 1980s Thatcherism incarnate. By underlining the emotional and social cost faced by women, the play challenges the fact that women have had to mimic the excesses of male behaviour in order to acquire a degree of power and agency. Top Girls is a feminist play, and shows Thatcherism and feminism to be antithetical. Churchill has said that she believes ‘there is no such thing as right-wing feminism’.
Key productions of Top Girls
Top Girls premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1982 in a production directed by Max Stafford-Clark, then the Royal Court's artistic director, and someone with a history of directing Churchill’s work. Selina Cadell and Lindsay Duncan starred in the original production, which also visited New York's Public Theater.
The play’s official Broadway premiere came in 2007 with a Manhattan Theatre Club production, starring Mary Beth Hurt, Martha Plimpton and Marisa Tomei. It was directed by frequent Churchill collaborator, James Macdonald.
Original director Stafford-Clark helmed the 2011 revival at Chichester Festival Theatre; it went on to transfer to Trafalgar Studios in the West End.
- Article by:
- 20th-century theatre, Gender and sexuality, Exploring identity
Since its premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in 1982, Max Stafford-Clark has directed numerous productions of Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s ground-breaking feminist play. The British Library talks with Stafford-Clark about the play’s political context and why he called it the ‘Best play I’ve ever directed’.
- Article by:
- Exploring identity, Gender and sexuality, 20th-century theatre
Bidisha explores gender, class and inequality in Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls.