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Theatre in Review: Belfast Girls (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Mary Mallen, Labhaoise Magee. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The Irish diaspora is the source of many gritty tales and Belfast Girls can stand up to the toughest of them. The ladies of the title are part of a program established by Henry Grey, British secretary of state for the colonies, to transport young Irish women in Australia. The scheme has been sold as a win for everyone: Australia needs wives and workers, and famine-wracked Ireland will welcome any reduction in mouths to feed. It's a mass transfer of womanpower from which everyone is supposed to benefit -- if they survive a trip of several months' duration, marked by rats, killing heat, disease, and the friction of personalities forced into close quarters.

As portrayed by playwright Jaki McCarrick, however, the plan is little more than a gussied-up con job. The ship in Belfast Girls ostensibly carries a cargo of the young and innocent. In fact, many of these "orphans" are considerably older, having worked the streets of Belfast as prostitutes. "We're all under nineteen an' as pure as the driven snow," one of them says, a comment greeted with smirks all around. (Some of them are intimately acquainted with infant mortality, too.) Despite their street smarts, they have illusions of their own, being convinced that Australia will provide them with fresh starts, including husbands and decent work. Their watchword, delivered half-mockingly but with an undertone of hope, is "mistresses of our own destiny." Well, they'll find out.

McCarrick throws together five women of varying walks of life into a cramped space and lets them get on each other's nerves. The group's dominant personality is Judith Noone, who is biracial, having been born in Jamaica. Formed by a hardscrabble youth -- she was raised by oyster catchers -- and years of selling herself on Belfast's streets, she is, nevertheless, blessed with an inquiring mind and iron will. She soon bonds with Molly Durcan, a country girl with a surprising cache of books, an informed knowledge of Karl Marx, and a past she'd rather not talk about. Faced with the tedium of travel, broken only by frighteningly stormy seas, and joined by their mutual love of reading, Judith and Molly become lovers, a fact noticed by the cagey, not-entirely-honest Sarah Jane Wylie, who sees more than she tells.

The first act of Belfast Girls unfolds in the dramatic equivalent of becalmed waters, largely because the play carries a substantial haul of exposition in its hold; McCarrick lingers on her characters, expertly etching their troubled backstories. Sarah gives a harrowing account of the famine's effect on minds and bodies. ("The mind goes quick when there's no food; the reason goes an' the shakes come.") Another of the women, Hannah Gibney, was sold by her father "like fresh meat to a Belfast pimp, so he could buy himself porter." Judith offers a skin-crawling account of a friend, dead at fourteen, "lyin' out like a sack of spuds, empty bottle of ether hangin' out of her hand. Rats everywhere." If the playwright brings a world of brutal exploitation to life, she is notably unhurried about creating drama among her feisty characters.

Then, not long into Act II, one of the women makes a small, but telling, slip and a lie is exposed, leading to a savage act of retribution that leaves the audience murmuring in dismay. This unexpected, but well-grounded, eruption into full-throated melodrama is electrifying enough, but McCarrick proceeds to top herself, baring another character's secret and, in the process, casting a new and harsher light on everyone's prospects. By the time the coast of Australia appears on the horizon, Belfast Girls has been transformed into a muscular drama shaped by a scalding feminist point of view.

If director Nicola Murphy might arguably do more to tauten the action of the first act, she orchestrates a second act full of fury and suspense. She also stages a simple, yet stirring, finale, in which the women step onto dry land to warily face an unknown future. Caroline Strange, a performer possessed of a natural authority, convinces one that Judith has survived all sorts of horrors, yet is capable of great tenderness with Molly. Aida Leventaki's Molly is a creature of contradictions, gentle and unsure of herself, yet also strong-minded and holding back something until, in the play's most revelatory moment, she tells all. At the performance I attended, understudy Owen Laheen stepped confidently into the role of Sarah Jane, sailing through her big monologue with barely a glance at the script in her lap and navigating an ugly physical confrontation as if she had been regularly doing it eight times a week. Mary Mallen and Labhaoise Magee are both solid as the brassy Hannah and her bellicose friend Ellen.

Chika Shimizu's cramped, two-level set provides an atmosphere in which conflict can easily explode and Michael O'Connor's classy lighting adds depth and shading to each stage picture. China Lee's costumes include the regulation drab blue dresses worn onboard, along with a complement of "good" dresses that the characters don at the last minute, suiting up for their new lives in a new world. Caroline Eng's excellent sound design -- a collage of waves, creaking wood, thunder, rain, and other effects -- goes a long way to creating the sense of life onboard a ship.

When McCarrick's drama The Naturalists debuted Off Off Broadway in 2018, it seemed likely that we would be hearing from her again; Belfast Girls, a very different work from that pastoral family drama, confirms her as a writer with a powerful and highly individual voice. All thanks to the Irish Rep bringing this play and its fresh slant on history to our attention. --David Barbour

(24 May 2022)

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