Top Girls by Caryl Churchill review

Hi everyone! Today is another first for me – my first review of a play. I don’t normally read plays, but as it is a category in the Reading Women challenge I thought I would give it a go. The one play I have always liked the sound of – and having never seen it live, would like to at some point – is Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. Before going in, I only knew about the opening magic realism sequence, where our lead character Marlene is at a dinner party with historical or mythical women e.g. Pope Joan. After this, we follow Marlene at her new job at the Top Girls agency, as well as supporting characters in the office. There is also the tense relationship between sixteen year old Angie and her mother Joyce.

Despite being written and set in the early 1980s, Top Girls feels startlingly relevant. Churchill explores women’s roles in society, and how women juggle having a successful career and a family/social life. We witness different characters make the difficult choice between the two, and the consequences of their decision. However, Churchill doesn’t judge them, or try to suggest one lifestyle is better than the other – she simply shows the effects of the choice, and it is up to the reader/audience to decide whether it is the right one. Churchill also tackles the idea of internalized sexism, as clear when a woman called Mrs. Kidd visits Marlene in her office. Mrs. Kidd’s husband was passed on the promotion that Marlene was given, and has arrive at the agency to ask Marlene to step down so her husband can have the job instead.  The lack of a forename for Mrs. Kidd, and the language used in this scene (should Marlene really be doing a man’s job?) combine to highlight how sexist attitudes affect how women see each other, and the toxicity that comes with that. Top Girls is incredibly successful in dealing with the themes at hand, and it is sad that the play still feels fresh more than 30 years later.

The characters as well were also a joy to read about. Marlene in particular was fascinating – at times she can be downright unlikable yet I always wanted her to succeed. Out of all them, I think Angie was the character I had the most problems with. She is a teenager but I felt she was so unnecessarily angry and hateful at the world (and particularly to Joyce) that I struggled to sympathise with her. In the final act of the play you do get a sense of where this anger is coming from and you feel sorry for Angie, but at that point I was more interested in other characters. I would have liked to have seen more of Joyce, as I don’t feel she is as fleshed out as some of the other characters. But that might have been a deliberate choice on the part of Churchill.

Overall, I really enjoyed Top Girls and am more keen than ever to see it performed. I always have mixed feelings reviewing plays – they are meant to be performed and seen, rather than read like a novel.  Yet sometimes reading them is as close as I can get – location, money, and time restrictions all affecting my ability to get to the theatre more. So, I simply have to take what I can get. But Top Girls was a really interesting, thought-provoking play, and I think one a lot of women could relate to.

Top Girls is published by Bloomsbury and you can find more information here