Belfast Girls: immigration on a leaky vessel

In Belfast Girls, the acting often surpasses the script.

Making theatre is like making music in a group: for either activity to really work, none of the elements can be out of tune or off-rhythm. In Belfast Girls, several components coordinate nicely. Others don’t.

Playwright Jaki McCarrick starts with a fascinating historical subject: during the Irish Famine, about 4,000 young Irish women accepted free passage to Australia as part of the Earl Grey Scheme. Supposedly, the scheme was designed to give young, impoverished females fresh opportunities in the New World and to stabilize the rough-and-ready, male-dominated colony. According to Judith, one of the characters in the play, the Earl Grey Scheme was also designed to rid Ireland of many of its “public women” or prostitutes.

In McCarrick’s play, we’re on a ship with five women who are making the voyage. Unfortunately, their dialogue is often declarative and didactic. Characters spew too-tidy monologues that sum up their life stories. Judith, a determined positive thinker, gives Sarah a lecture about empathy. Later, the embittered Sarah proclaims, “I don’t want to be understood. I want to be dead inside. For what do I hear? Only the dead survive in Australia.”

Mysterious Molly, who arrives bearing books, is a proto-feminist. “You do have choices,” she lectures the other women. “There are groups startin’ all over the world.” In her interest in women’s rights, Molly is ahead of the historical curve, but she certainly has a point. Unfortunately, despite the multifaceted oppression the characters face, Molly’s analysis remains abstract. Molly gives Judith Das Kapital and Judith immediately latches onto the idea of class warfare, but, with one notable exception, we don’t get a clear picture of the ways that the politics of gender and class play out on the boat.

Within this somewhat leaky literary vessel, there’s some very nice work from the cast. Olivia Sara Grace plays Molly with a compelling stillness that bespeaks intelligence and an active internal life. And Amelia Ross inhabits Sarah with such simple conviction that I completely bought the character’s dark backstory. In Act 1, there’s a scene between these two that’s the highlight of this production. Paige Gibbs, who plays Ellen, has less time than the rest to highlight her character’s tragedy, but she accesses it honestly and movingly. She also has the most nuanced accent of all the passengers. Although Tegan Verheul, who plays Fat Hannah, is far from fat—which makes some of the dialogue nonsensical—she delivers a sincere portrait that she embellishes with robust comic timing.

Judith is a central character and, unfortunately, actor Mariam Barry struggles with her accent. It’s inconsistent and Barry falls into a repetitive rhythm in which she chops sentences into chunks. Her performance is also more superficial than the rest, although it is sometimes obviously heartfelt.

The handsome, serviceable set is by Andy Sorensen, and Nicole Weismiller provides the evocative lighting.

So, as I said: several successful elements, but the effect of the flaws is significant.

BELFAST GIRLS By Jaki McCarrick. Directed by Wendy Bollard. Presented by Peninsula Productions. In the Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab on Wednesday, March 15. Continues until March 18.

For tickets, phone 604-251-1363 or go to https://tickets.thecultch.com

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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