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35 YEARS LATER: CARYL CHURCHILL & HER STILL-TOO-TIMELY TOP GIRLS

Caryl Churchill and Liesl Tommy

Written in 1982, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls has become a classic of contemporary British theatre. Set in Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union and unemployment-stricken England, Top Girls follows a no-nonsense business woman named Marlene during the aftermath of her promotion at work. We follow her through an Alice in Wonderland-like dinner party, her life in her new management role, and a visit to her working-class sister’s home. Throughout the course of the play, Marlene reckons with her own issues with class, her relationship with her sister, and the sacrifices she had to make to become a “top girl.” Top Girls’ narrative and themes are straight forward — that is until Churchill masterfully rearranges the play’s timeline to highlight the intersections between sacrifice, selfishness, and personal success, deepening the core of the play.
“Congratulations, my dear,” says the 19th-century explorer Isabella Bird to the 20th-century Marlene after Marlene’s promotion. In the famous first scene of the play, Marlene invites five historical women to a dinner party meant to celebrate her promotion. The party devolves from calm and commemorative into a raucous event, with a little help from bottles and bottles of wine. The women revel in their successes and celebrate how much women have done and how far they’ve come. In the first scene, it feels as if the glass ceiling has finally been smashed because of Marlene’s promotion. Churchill amplifies the jubilant nature of the dinner party by writing realistic dialogue and moments of awesome noise. The dinner party reaches levels that are symphonic in their crescendo of speech and sound, but it always feels controlled, purposeful, and very, very funny. Churchill’s firm hand over the scene especially shows when she has two or even three of the women speak over each other, while maintaining the scene’s meaning, emotion, and fun.

After the dinner party, the play drops back into reality and the veneer of dreamlike celebration falls apart. Although the transition is jarring, it’s deliberate and a vital part of what makes Marlene’s story — and Top Girls as a whole — so compelling. Marlene goes from a woman who is celebrated by all the women at the dinner party, to a woman who is multidimensional and flawed and ferocious.

Marlene is branded as a “ballbuster” by a woman who thinks her husband should have been promoted to Marlene’s job, and her sister chastises her for giving up too much to become successful, especially at the expense of others. Churchill’s nonlinear storytelling heightens and highlights the moments of dramatic irony found in Marlene’s story and emphasizes the dark underbelly of success. Because of how much the nonlinear storytelling of Top Girls adds to the story, it’s safe to say that Top Girls wouldn’t be the classic that it is without Churchill’s smart construction.

Churchill is a prolific, theatrical, British heavyweight, having written over 45 plays and been lauded by peers such as Paula Vogel as the “the greatest playwright alive.” As a credit to her craft, Churchill and Tom Stoppard are often framed as contemporaries because of the similarities in the ways in which they create stories. Churchill and Stoppard both use wit and comedy to explore philosophical and social issues, and they’re both a ton of fun to see on stage because of their hard-hitting, funny stories and their epic scope.

Thirty-five years after its debut, Churchill’s Top Girls is still scarily relevant and timely. The ever-current societal issues of class and gender are examined through a cast of multidimensional female characters like Marlene, and Churchill’s confidence with experimentation and theatricality keep the play feeling fresh. Top Girls remains nuanced and enjoyable, while challenging the expectations society places on women and success. Because of this, Top Girls really is a play written for everyone, from people interested in having visceral reactions to a gripping story, to theatregoers interested in plays as agents for social change and political thought. So, go, sit back, embrace — and enjoy — the carefully constructed timeline and the laser-sharp exploration of women in history and modern society that is the Huntington’s version of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 classic Top Girls.

– J. SEBASTIAN ALBERDI


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