Form of the top

For its anniversary production of Caryl Churchill’s groundbreaking play Top Girls, Liverpool’s Everyman has moved the setting to its own city and recast the lead character as Black

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Caryl Churchill wrote Top Girls 40 years ago in response to Thatcherism and the economic and social crisis the country found itself in. It’s a sad state of affairs when this, one of the most important plays of the 20th century, is revived not just because of a significant anniversary but because it reflects the current state of society with its themes.

“It feels like we are reliving the collapse of our state infrastructure and care in our society on an even grander scale right now,” says Suba Das, creative director at Liverpool Everyman theatre. “Caryl Churchill, our greatest living playwright, turns these challenging political and economic realities into human drama, so that we can all understand on a personal level how we’re all affected by these things.”

Churchill explored this through the lens of Marlene, who has grown up in a working-class community and makes it to London, where she becomes the managing director of the Top Girls recruitment agency. The play explores what it’s taken for Marlene to get there, what kind of woman she’s made herself, and then what happens when she returns home to see her sister Joyce, who stayed behind. The collision of class and values culminates in a family argument over the Christmas dinner table.

For this 40th anniversary production Churchill has allowed the Everyman to transport the action to Liverpool and cast a Black actor in the lead role.

“We have a saying in the North East which is shy bairns get nowt,” says Das, who was born in Newcastle. “It felt really cheeky asking Caryl if she’d be up for exploring this and I was so excited when the answer came back yes.

“What I’m trying to do is ensure this theatre is a place where we’re telling stories that really connect and matter, and are about our history as a city but also our future.”

In 1981 when the play is set, the city was on the verge of the Toxteth uprising, when the Black community in Liverpool took to the streets to demand racial justice.

“The police and access to core services were really being denied to Black communities here,” says Das. “It’s created so many new possibilities, and suddenly the text reverberates in a different way. Marlene is the only woman of colour in the office scenes where she’s being this badass managing director. Now more of the conversations we’re finally having as a society are about the experiences people of colour face in the workplace and that has given us fresh opportunity to explore that and look at what we now understand are micro-aggressions.”

Above: Suba Das. Main image: Top Girls cast – Natalie Thomas, Sky Frances, Nadia Anim, Saffron Dey, Lauren Lane, Alicya Eyo, Tala Gouveia, Ailsa Joy. (L1 Photography, Olivia Carroll)

The Top Girls cast is a diverse one that Das says ensures the production is “propelled by the power and politics of Scouse women who believe enough is enough”. Theatre, he believes, can be a direct form of activism.

“I think anything that brings audiences together to explore a question is activism. I think we’re living in times where people aren’t coming together. We’re very polarised in our views and perspectives, and social media encourages that.

“I’ve always believed that the final act of any play is the conversation in the bar afterwards. And so I’m drawn to plays and stories that ask complex questions and give space for people to have a range of responses, and to take away some questions and thoughts that they might not otherwise have had.”

Importantly for this play, he points out, Marlene is a woman who has left behind her community.

“We discover that she is a big fan of Margaret Thatcher. However, she’s also a woman who has escaped terrible poverty and violence to create safety for herself. If we just judge her, if we fall into really easy, lazy kind of political fault lines, we’re not doing the thing that we all have to do to move forwards, which is find ways to communicate and compromise. If we can’t collaborate, then we will fall apart.”

Post-show discussions and panel events will bring in Black feminists and activists and allow the audience to respond to the play.

“I’m still in my first year here and I want to hear from people in Liverpool what matters so that I can ensure we are the most responsive, reflective, and supportive theatre we can be for as many people as possible,” says Das, adding that taking on the play as a man was “very scary because there aren’t enough great opportunities still for women in this sector”. But Marlene’s story also reflected his own.

“As somebody brought up on benefits, I’ve done the Marlene journey and now with race as an element within that journey as well, I know really deeply what it’s taken for me to be able to do the job I do.”

The support of Churchill herself has been invaluable. The playwright has been very closely involved with the production.

“I was terrified when I first met her,” he admits. “She’s 84 now but she still goes to the theatre very regularly. She keeps up to date and sees how the world is evolving, how stagecraft is evolving. I knew that I was going to be meeting somebody who has energy, but I could not have imagined. She has a real twinkle in her eye.”

Top Girls is at the Liverpool Everyman, 3-25 March. Post-show discussions take place on 9 March after the evening performance and 23 March after the matinee. Workshops take place on 11, 18 and 22 March (

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