The opening act lasts around 40 minutes in performance, and is possibly the most difficult to understand. The working woman of the present is represented by Marlene, and references to the roles and rights of women across the world and throughout time are shown through female historical figures from different periods and places. They come together over dinner in a restaurant, where Marlene hosts the meal to celebrate her promotion to Managing Director of the Top Girls employment agency. (A suspension of disbelief is needed by the audience to take in the collision between different worlds in this scene; after all, drama does not necessarily have to be naturalistic and true or accurate to life).
As the guests continue to arrive, the conversation starts the way it carries on. The women talk over each other and do not appear to be listening to each other's stories. This raises issues about a lack of solidarity and support amongst women and the repressed truth of each woman's experience. Here the characters are on a mission to tell their life story: each woman has a history to tell, and each does get a short period of uninterrupted speech, where they lay open their eventful lives. Note how some, like Lady Nijo and Griselda, do not question what the men in their lives have subjected them to until other women prompt them to do so. The identity of women, of individuals and the group identity are presented as topics to consider.
The Methuen Student edition of Top Girls gives clear outlines of each character's history.
Jeanine comes to Marlene's agency to find work: she is currently a secretary. Marlene and Jeanine's thoughts are in very different places. Jeanine seems lacking in career ambition, her main goal being to save for her wedding, but she would like to travel. Marlene tries to put words into Jeanine's mouth, and reveals that for a woman, success in the workplace is very much at the mercy of being seen as single, and a reliable employee, conscious of personal presentation whilst rejecting marriage and children. The jobs, which Marlene offers Jeanine, are within what we would regard as female arenas, and are limited in what they offer- they are all assistant's posts, quite far from the top of the company. Marlene is not really concerned to act in Jeanine's best interests.
The scene shifts to Joyce's backyard, whom we later discover is Marlene's sister. Joyce's daughter Angie bullies Kit, who is her playmate, despite the age difference between them. Angie is obviously unhappy with her life with Joyce, and speaks of her harshly. Generally, she swears and uses crude language and gestures. At one point she suggests that Marlene is actually her mother. Joyce is concerned about Angie and exerts control over her in various parental ways; there is real difficulty and resentment in the mother-daughter relationship. Joyce sees Angie's future as one with few options except marriage because of her lack of qualifications.
Win and Nell discuss their weekends, and Win's married lover. They are quite detached in their conversation and attitude towards others, no matter what their relationship to them. They speak dismissively of Howard Kidd, who lost out on the post of Managing Director to Marlene, and express their pride in Marlene as an ambitious woman. Churchill questions the choice in these women's relationships, as Win acknowledges that if her affair became public, it would end. She regards it as fun, but ultimately has no right to decision making in her relationship.
Win interviews Louise, a competent worker in her 40's who feels unappreciated in middle management while young men are promoted above her. Win is positive about age bringing experience, although Louise feels threatened by a new generation of working women, who seem more go-getting.
Angie arrives in the main office and the distance between her and Marlene is evident. Howard's wife interrupts, criticising the decision to promote a woman over her husband.
The scene cuts to another interview, where Shona lies about her experience to gain employment.
Marlene's closing comment on Angie is a judgement regarding her lack of prospects in life.
We travel back in time, to a year earlier. Marlene is visiting her sister and Angie (note the different settings, office and domestic, that the women are placed in). We discover that Angie is in fact Marlene's child, whom she gave up to Joyce in favour of pursuing her own career. She later had two abortions. Her motivation was to escape the background in which she and her sister grew up. While caring for Angie, Joyce miscarried her own child, so there is resentment all round. The distance between the two sisters is personal and political: Joyce resents her sister's lifestyle and lack of commitment to her parents and child/niece. Both have different perspectives on their parents' lives: Marlene looks back on their father as a violent drunkard, while Joyce sees a wider social perspective where their parents were both trapped economically, with problems arising from that. This is typical of their political views: Marlene is concerned for the individual, particularly the female, while Joyce sees a more socialist argument. At this point Marlene stands up for Angie against Joyce's criticisms. The Act ends dramatically with a statement from Angie: we are aware of her environment and relationship with both her mothers, and the impact these have on her: her life is 'frightening'.