Marlene, a London businesswoman, hosts a dinner party at a nice restaurant to celebrate a recent promotion. Her guests are not friends, family members, or coworkers; however, they are women plucked from history, art, and myth. Among them are Isabella Bird, a nineteenth-century writer, explorer, and naturalist; Lady Nijo, a thirteenth-century concubine who became a wandering Buddhist nun after she fell out of favor at court; Dull Gret, the subject of a Flemish renaissance painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder; Pope Joan, a woman who disguised herself as a man and was appointed Pope in the Middle Ages; and Patient Griselda, a character from the stories of Boccaccio and Chaucer, whose obedience to her husband in the face of horrible mistreatment made her the stuff of legend. As the dinner party unfolds, the women eat ravenously, grow deeply intoxicated, and talk over one another as they share the stories of their often-painful lives. The women discuss motherhood, love, abuse, and disappointment, and as strikingly similar coincidences emerge, it becomes clear that all of these women’s sufferings stem from the crushing violence of a life lived on the terms of the patriarchy.
The following Monday, Marlene is back at her job at the Top Girls Employment Agency, interviewing a woman named Jeanine who hopes to be placed in a job that will pay more money and offer more opportunity for advancement. When Jeanine reveals that she’s saving money for a wedding, Marlene discourages her from sharing her plans with any prospective employers, as her preparation for a role as a wife and, ostensibly, a mother will hurt her chances of getting hired.
The action moves to the backyard of Marlene’s sister Joyce, where Joyce’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Angie, and Angie’s twelve-year-old friend Kit play in a makeshift shelter assembled from junk. The girls bicker, insulting each other and calling each other names. Angie reveals a desire to kill her mother. Joyce comes out the yard and calls for the girls to come in for tea and biscuits; when they don’t answer, she tells them to “stay [in the fort] and die.” Joyce goes back inside the house, and Angie reveals that she is soon going to go to London to visit her aunt Marlene, whom she believes is her true mother. Joyce comes out and calls, once again, for the girls to come inside. Angie and Kit want to go to a movie, but Joyce insists Angie clean her room before going out. Angie goes inside and comes back in just a moment later in a fancy dress which is too small for her. She picks a brick up off of the ground and holds it. It begins to rain, and Joyce and Kit run inside to avoid getting wet. Kit calls for Angie to come inside—Angie reveals that she had put the dress on to kill her mother. Kit implies that Angie is too chicken to go through with it, and Angie puts the brick down.
Back at the Top Girls Employment Agency, two of Marlene’s coworkers, Win and Nell, gossip about Marlene’s recent promotion. Marlene has been promoted over a man named Howard Kidd—another prominent employee. When Marlene arrives in the office, the girls tease her about taking advantage of coming in late now that she’s the boss, but then congratulate her on her success. Win interviews a woman named Louise, a woman in her forties who wants to move out of the job she’s been at for twenty-one years in order to make her employers feel sorry for never having noticed her or promoted her for her hard work. Back in the main office, Angie arrives to visit Marlene. Marlene is surprised by Angie’s presence, and asks if Angie is just visiting for the day, but Angie reveals that she has come to London to stay with Marlene indefinitely. When Marlene exhibits some uncertainty about housing Angie, Angie becomes upset, and asks if Marlene doesn’t want her around; Marlene overcompensates and tells Angie that she can stay as long as she wants. A woman enters the office, looking for Marlene—she is Mrs. Kidd, Howard’s wife, and she has come to ask Marlene to forfeit the promotion so that Howard, deeply distressed at having been overlooked, can claim it. Marlene refuses, and Mrs. Kidd calls Marlene a ballbreaker; she warns Marlene that she will wind up “miserable and lonely” before leaving in a huff. Marlene tells Angie she has to go take care of some business, and leaves Angie alone in her office. Nell interviews a young woman named Shona—it becomes clear over the course of the interview that Shona has lied about everything on her resume, and has never held a job in her life. Win and Angie get to talking—Angie asks for a job at Top Girls, and Win bores Angie with her long, dramatic life story until Angie falls asleep. Nell comes back into the main office with news that Howard has suffered a heart attack. Marlene returns to find Angie asleep. Win tells Marlene that Angie wants a job at the agency, but Marlene says that Angie won’t ever be anything more than a bagger at a grocery store; she tells the other women flatly that Angie is “not going to make it.”
The action transitions to Joyce’s house, one year earlier. Angie has, unbeknownst to Joyce, summoned Marlene for a visit, and Marlene has arrived bearing numerous presents for both Angie and Joyce. Angie opens one of her parcels to find the fancy dress from the first act. She declares that she loves it, and runs to her room to put it on right away. Angie is clearly thrilled by Marlene’s presence, but Joyce is less than happy to have her sister around. Marlene and Joyce begin drinking whiskey and catching up, but Angie is confused by Joyce and Marlene’s shared memories and soon goes off to bed. Joyce tells Marlene that she is worried about Angie, who has been in remedial classes for two years. Marlene and Joyce begin discussing their mother, who is in a nursing home nearby—Marlene reveals that she went to visit her earlier in the day. This angers Joyce, who is upset that Marlene, after having left their hometown years ago, returns only every five or so years on a whim and has no real part in her own life, their mother’s, or Angie’s. Marlene defends herself for choosing to leave, but Joyce berates Marlene for having left her own daughter behind. Marlene claims that Joyce was all too happy to agree to raise Angie as her own after Marlene had an unwanted pregnancy, but Joyce confides in Marlene that Angie has, in fact, been a burden. Marlene becomes upset, and Joyce comforts her; the two women switch the subject and begin discussing romance. Though Marlene has no love life to speak of, she is optimistic about her future, and believes that she is going to enjoy great personal and economic success in the coming years due to the recently-installed prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies. Joyce and Marlene get into a political debate; Joyce is angry with Marlene for her fancy lifestyle and upper-middle-class aspirations, while Marlene looks down on Joyce for remaining stuck in a working-class town and never striving for more. Marlene tries to stop the argument and asks Joyce if they can still be friends in spite of their differing beliefs, but Joyce admits she doesn’t think they can be. Joyce readies the sofa for Marlene to sleep on, and then heads to bed herself. As Marlene settles in on the couch, Angie comes downstairs in a daze, calling for her mother. Marlene tells Angie that her mother has gone to bed and asks Angie if she was having a nightmare; Angie only replies, over and over, “Frightening.”