Top Girls: Performance Notes

“Top Girls”

Written by Caryl Churchill

Directed by Apbigail Holland


The more things change, the more they stay the same. That could be the motto for the drama “Top Girls.” Cue a dinner party organized to celebrate a woman’s promotion—over a male colleague—to managing director of the Top Girls employment agency. The invited guests are a Who’s Who of fascinating historical and fictional women sharing the sacrifices and compromises they made and the prices they paid for surviving in a man’s world. Talk about a power dinner! 

The following two acts follow Marlene, who negotiates with family and with work in then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s England in the 1980s. We realize that things haven’t changed a whole lot. 

British playwright Caryl Churchill published “Top Girls,” an iconic piece of feminist theater, in 1982, with its premiere coming later that year at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It premiered on Broadway in 2008. 

Fourth-Year Drama Directing major Abigail Holland directs this provocative play as her thesis, putting into practice all she has learned at the UNCSA School of Drama. Holland’s focus in her course of study has been on how women navigate power. Central to her interests are “the interpersonal and institutionalized power dynamics that affect women and how these fit into a patriarchal society,” the director says. And “Top Girls” is the perfect vehicle for exploring these interests. “I’m fascinated with women adapting and negotiating to survive in structures built for men. In ‘Top Girls,’ we can see this in the different women in the first act—the historic and fictional figures—and how this translates to the women in the following two acts. This nonlinear structure of the play further enriches the story for the audience.” 

Marlene, a successful, career-driven business woman—who, though she has risen through the ranks at the titular London company—still has challenges to deal with at work and in her own family. In its review of the play The Guardian writes, “Long before anyone coined the phrase ‘having it all,’ Churchill in ‘Top Girls’ was exploring whether you could be a mother and have a successful career, whether getting to the top involved killing some aspect of yourself, what sisterhood really meant.” 

The guests at Marlene’s dinner span the centuries and the globe: from ninth-century Pope Joan, who disguised herself as a man, to 19th-century explorer Isabella Bird; and from Lady Nijo, a 13th-century Japanese courtesan who becomes a Buddhist nun, to characters from art and literature, such as Dull Gret, leader of a band of looting women who invade hell, depicted in a painting by Pieter Bruegel; and patient Griselda, a character in “The Clerk’s Tale” in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” In dealing with the question of whether motherhood and success are mutually exclusive, it should be noted that all the women Marlene has invited, save Bird, are mothers whose child or children were given up or taken away, and all of them are victims, in one way or another, of the male-dominated world they lived in. 

“Within Act 1, the women constantly interrupt each other with overlapping dialogue, Holland explains. “People speak differently when they are expected to be listened to versus when they have to fight for space.”

In the following acts, Marlene navigates work and family. Churchill explores how her characters do and don’t take on patriarchal traits to survive. The double- and triple-casting highlights the women of the first act and how their lives mirror the women of the second and third acts. Costumes echo this structural device. All in all, there’s plenty here to chew on.

Given the current political and social environment, “Top Girls” feels like a timely offering at the School of Drama.

February 07, 2020