Caryl Churchill

Everyman, Liverpool  11th March 2023.

Reviewed by Alan Dent 

Speaking on Radio 4 on 8th March, Charlotte Keatley argued that Churchill and other women playwrights (presumably including herself)  overthrew the old exposition, development, climax and denouement model of drama and replaced it by a form which relied more on juxtaposition. The problem with this is that Brecht used juxtaposition and Top Girls owes something to Brechtian practice. Keatley’s reputation rests effectively on My Mother Said That I Never Should, a far less subversive play in any sense than Loot or What The Butler Saw. That women were kept out of playwriting for centuries is a moral disgrace, but is the sensible response to set women and men at odds in a league table of significance?  

Churchill’s play reflects her worthy social democracy/democratic socialism. The terms are difficult to employ with precision. North Korea calls itself socialist. So did Harold Wilson and Roy Jenkins, for a while. Like everyone who hopes for a more egalitarian, open, democratic, tolerant, peaceful society, what Churchill has is hope and not much more. There is evidence for natural human sympathy and for an innate moral sense, but it doesn’t conclusively support the notion that society will be organised around generous impulses. Marx’s predictions are wishful thinking. His analyses rest on evidence and data, but he leaves those behind when he fantasies a classless, harmonious future.  

From her hope, Churchill responded to Thatcher’s 1979 victory. The first scene with its non-naturalistic dinner-party at which Marlene’s guests from history celebrate her promotion, explores the cost of their eminence. One way and another, all five have been subject to male control and cruelty. History gives little succour, yet from our perspective (or that of the first audiences in 1982) there has been obvious moral progress. Ironically, Thatcher’s election was a measure. Disappointing that the first women Prime Minister should be an arch-reactionary, but her elevation at least proclaimed that women didn’t need to be submissive and secondary. On the other hand, her belief that she had advanced through pure merit, diminished the social issue: Thatcher’s belief in individual ambition and achievement undermined the political effort to reform our economic and social arrangements. 

The play’s second scene brings us to contemporary reality in the Top Girls employment agency of which Marlene is now the CEO (which ought to stand for Crass Egocentric Opportunist). She’s a conformist go-getter. In a way, such people are scary. They threaten our well-being. Yet they are also ridiculous and pathetic, with their hypocrisy which claims they deserve their insane salaries for their special contribution to society. Churchill’s portrayal tilts to the scary side. There is maybe a hint of manipulation in this. It’s a permanent temptation when the artist is trying to direct the audience’s sympathies away from a particular character or set of characters. Edward Bond engages in it too heavily, which is partly what Orton was getting at when he called Saved “an incredibly cissy play”. Orton’s technique is very different. His morally empty characters aren’t scary but hilarious. To make the audience hold its sides over Fay McMahon or Inspector Truscott may be a better strategy than trying to touch off fear.  

In showing us her woman on the make, Churchill sites her in a man’s world. Marlene has developed the carapace necessary to success. When she learns that Howard, her rival for the top job, has had a heart-attack, she’s unmoved. In the first Act, we are unaware of Marlene’s background, but in Act Two we meet Angie who is apparently her niece, but who believes she is in fact her daughter. The contrast between the glitter of |Marlene’s rise and her sister Joyce’s drab, difficult, cleaner’s life, looking after the abrasive teenager is as stark as the division between rich and poor driven by Thatcher’s policies. Yet in dramatic terms it’s perhaps a little too glib. Poverty destroys people, but what is remarkable is the ability of the poor to resist their circumstances. Why do artists so seldom celebrate this? Why are the poor in art seldom people of character? Lawrence’s Morels are poor, but they aren’t emotionally, psychologically, socially or morally bereft. Lawrence came from amongst the poor and knew that strength of character can often sit with grinding circumstances. When people from outside the working folk write about them, they too often rely on a theoretical conception. Shelagh Delaney knew better: working people are often cynical, funny, resilient, which is why A Taste of Honey doesn’t try to evoke pity for its protagonists.  

There’s an important point to be made about this: if people are simply products of their environment, where’s the moral barrier to manipulating them? If people can be moulded in any way, what’s wrong with working them to death, or making them live in slums or for that matter putting them in concentration camps? It’s because doing those things is an offence to our nature they are morally objectionable. It’s not pity for the poor we need, but moral disgust at the actions which make them poor, because those actions are an insult to our given nature. Either this is true, or there is no moral boundary to what we can do to one another.  

The scenes in the employment agency establish a clear sense of the narcissistic, insensitive, blinkered nature of the world of profit and loss but its in the final act that the play knits together its two worlds. The disrupted chronology works, but is more of a gimmick than a necessity. In the same way, Churchill’s famed cross-over dialogue sometimes results in being unable to hear what either character says. The play begins in radical anti-naturalism and ends in extreme realism. As Joyce boils water in a real kettle and fills real cups, it’s perhaps slightly difficult to reconcile this with the creative anachronism of the start. It’s when Marlene’s go-getting clashes with Joyce’s make-do-ism and the aunt accuses the mother of having sacrificed her child to her ambition, that the play shows its claws. 

Churchill is asking a simple question: if everyone is hurrying in pursuit of lucre and status, who’s going to look after the children? But looking after the children is a metaphor for our wider needs. How are we going to attend to our mutual needs when our minds are fixed on the “bottom line”? Churchill is a concerned democratic egalitarian, but she isn’t a subversive. What the play leaves us with is the sense that Joyce and Angie should be helped, that the gap should be closed, that opportunities should be available to the star-struck teenager who wants to be like Marlene. It may be, though, that Tories who see this play will admire Marlene. Even middle-of-the-road Labourites might not object to her if something can be done to lift Joyce and Angie. There’s the rub: what’s to be done and by what agency? 

Wisely, Churchill poses the questions; but the play doesn’t pull the entire rug from the system Marlene thrives in. Churchill is said to have been partly inspired by conversations with American feminists who saw advancement under capitalism as their aim, which left her wondering what happened to the idea of social transformation. Who has won? Marlene or Joyce? The go-getter or the socialist? The notion that feminism is about women becoming rich and powerful is everywhere. The notion it’s about freeing cleaners from the moral outrage of employment has been more or less completely lost.  

Churchill’s play is on the side of transformation. Marlene is denatured, as are her colleagues. Win interviews Louise who has grafted for years in the same place only to find herself in her mid-fifties, alone and passed over for promotion by less experienced and competent men. Yet to Win she isn’t a person: merely labour for hire. Nell interviews the impressive Shona who turns out to have cobbled together a fantasised CV. Once again, sympathy for the wretched state of a person who has to formulate a thoroughly false biography in order to make a living, is missing. Nell is simple exasperated at the waste of time. There is an excruciating scene in which Mrs Kidd, Howard’s wife, comes to plead and accuse Marlene of having stolen his job, of intruding into male territory. She speaks for a dead mentality. The world of 1982 has no place for the old category of female home-maker. Women are now required to use their elbows in the each-against-all fight for advantage. Is Churchill suggesting that women were better off as domestic goddesses? Joyce’s condition wouldn’t say so. Churchill is making the dilemma poignant: equality, between the genders or in any other sphere, requires a thoroughgoing transformation; a few women in  boardrooms, the cabinet, the judiciary, the media, a handful of women billionaires, makes no difference to the lives of women like Joyce and girls like Angie. The debased version of equality – the race is open to everyone and devil take the hindmost – is mere ideology: it masks the increasing inequality it engenders.  

The two poles of the play are Marlene and Angie, mother and daughter. The former a self-regarding go-getter driven by a phoney individualism, the latter a no-hope teenager in the left-behind provinces. Leaving behind the unworthy was the essence of Thatcher’s politics, warmly embraced by that poor man’s Mussolini, Blair. The latter specifically argued that the future belongs to shape-shifters and those who can’t keep up can’t be helped. At the end of the play, we are faced with a choice, but because Churchill is more concerned to convince than subvert, the audience has a get-out. The liberal-minded, middle-of-the-road, mainstream mind can respond by sympathising with piecemeal reform. Maybe women who believe shinning up the greasy pole is the best feminism can attain will conclude the play is on their side: choices are difficult for women; who wants to be the down-at-the-bottom cleaner when there’s the chance of money and status? Compare this to Orton’s barely-ever revived The Good and Faithful Servant which attacks employment unreservedly. Orton recognises that employment is degrading by definition, no more morally viable than slavery. Churchill holds back from such beyond-the-paleism. Her position seems to be that plays like Top Girls might help persuade people to better ways. Orton is more cynical: the current arrangements are morally despicable and corrupt. They must be swept away.  

The poster blurb calls Top Girls one of the ten best plays of the 20th century. League table stuff. It’s a good play which raises vital questions. Its structure is robust and the writing at a high level. This is an excellent production. The acting is of an impeccably high standard. The sets are perfect. Churchill has written a play which will endure and provoke crucial debate, but forty years after its debut we are sunk in greater inequality than ever in addition to advancing authoritarianism. Does Top Girls make the rich and powerful anxious? Let’s hope so.