By Sarah Downs
In the Great Famine of the mid 19th century, one million Irish died of starvation. One-third of their population. The rest barely survived, in various states of destitution and aching hunger. Earl Grey, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, came up with a brilliantly self-serving way to ‘solve’ the Irish crisis. He would give ‘morally pure’ girls the opportunity to leave Ireland to find a better life in Australia. (Oh Yes, I am sure he cared deeply about their welfare.) Some 4,000 girls took advantage of this Orphan Emigration Scheme, spending four long months at sea on a terrible and terrifying journey.
What courage these girls must have had, casting off the old country to land in a wild, unknown place from which there would be no return. And yet through the crucible of this extraordinary journey they were inevitably transformed. They spend the voyage in a constant state of reaction. Close quarters, wild seas and boredom bring out the worst in some and the best in others, redefined by circumstance. In her thought-provoking play Belfast Girls Jaki McCarrick seizes on a third option — actively choosing to become someone new, contemplating the radical idea of being “mistresses of their own destiny.”
As the play opens five women crowd into one room. Its flimsy, dark paneled walls and a hint of an upper balcony take us shipboard. Gulls cry overhead. Silence, flashes of lightning and thunder clock the passage of time. And always, there is endless monotony. Inevitably fights break out, friendships form and break apart, and endless bickering reflects the girls’ almost unbearable anxiety. Each hopes for marriage, the only ‘legitimate’ path for a woman, in Australia. To that end Judith (Caroline Strange) the natural leader, pushes the girls not to be ‘typical’ raucous girls from Belfast. One might call her bossy.
Molly (Aida Leventaki), a quiet, well-read girl doesn’t fit the Belfast mold. Levantaki is excellent, conveying Molly’s mystery and hope in a well-focused performance. Molly wants more out of life than the expected drudgery. The quiet firebrand, she inspires Judith to embrace her own intelligence and ambition. As for the others, we see Ellen’s (Labhaoise Magee) unexpected quiet fortitude. Sarah’s (Sarah Street) delicate vulnerability and Hannah’s (Mary Mallen) self-protective bravado.
Clocking in at 2 hrs and 10 minutes, the piece is overlong, and as a result the energy flags. One moment that really doesn’t work is the rather obvious overstating of one relationship. It’s apotheosis feels awkward because it is awkward. A group madcap singing moment feels somewhat formulaic, but I think that is more of a timing issue. The actresses do their best to leaven the pace of the play, but the piece falters under the weight of its own onion peeling, as it were. Often their work feels ‘acted’ rather than lived, despite their obvious talent.
Nevertheless, there are moments of terror and joy, especially in the second act, as the pace increases, and the narrative builds to startling climax. Both epiphany and fence at which they stumble, the moment and its aftermath are riveting.
Belfast Girls, by Jaki McCarrick. Directed by Nicola Murphy. With Aida Leventaki, Labhaoise Magee, Mary Mallen, Caroline Strange and Sarah Street. Set design by Chika Shimizu, costume design by China Lee, lighting design by Michael O’Connor and sound design by Caroline Eng. Avery Trunko, Production Stage Manager; Mary Garrigan, Assistant Stage Manager.
Masks must be worn at all times.