11 April 2019, The Tablet

Winners and losers

Winners and losers

Ashley McGuire plays Dull Gret – a warrior woman painted by Bruegel – in Top Girls
Photo: Johan Persson


Top Girls
National Theatre, London

The Phlebotomist
Hampstead Theatre, London

Due to the historical imbalance of who got to tell stories about whom, the majority of old plays have more male than female roles. Caryl Churchill’s 1982 Top Girls is a rare exception, all 18 of its roles female, but, as it was premiered and then revived in smaller theatres, it has paradoxically rarely provided work for more than seven or so actresses, with roles doubled up for budgetary reasons.

The resources of the National Theatre, though, mean that Lyndsey Turner’s production, part of Churchill’s eightieth birthday celebrations, is the first to cast one-for-one, leading to the rare sight of a dozen and a half women lining up to be applauded.

That curtain call is an example of feminist progress, about which Churchill’s play is more equivocal. The setting remains 1980-81, during the first Thatcher administration, the very recent past when the play was first seen, but now deep history.

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