Belfast Girls. By Jaki McCarrick. Directed by Jordan Best. Echo Theatre. Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. Until August 31. Bookings: 62856290 or theq.net.au.
There is a stark and earthy authenticity to Jordan Best's premiere production of Belfast Girls for Echo Theatre, the newly formed professional resident company at the Q.
Playwright Jaki McCarrick has meticulously researched Lord Earl Grey's well-intentioned and subsequently abused Orphan Emigration Scheme of 1845 -1851. Grey's vision for an escape from the Potato Famine to secure a new life for women in the colony would be exploited by the church and the workhouses to rid the country of undesirable women, mainly prostitutes and unwanted occupants of the workhouses.
McCarrick's play focuses on a feisty, loud-mouthed, assertive group of women known as the Belfast Girls, each with a troubled past and dreams of becoming mistresses of their own destiny.. It's on the second of Earl Grey's ships, the Inchinnan,
These women are flesh and blood, played with true grit and vulnerability by Best's finely chosen cast. Impetuous, hot-headed and rough, Natasha Vickery's Hannah is the epitome of the Belfast Girl. She is well matched by Joanna Richards' defiantly assertive Ellen. Jamaican-born Judith Noone is played with a pragmatic authority by Isabel Burton. Phoebe Heath imbues Sarah with a vulnerability that hides a dark secret and Eliza Jennings's introspective Molly exudes a mysterious secret with fateful consequence.
Best directs with a sensitive appreciation of the historical events and McCarrick's individual characters
McCarrick's insightful, in-depth research, and purposefully crafted drama is a gift for actor and director alike. We see real women, bearing the burden of their poverty and struggle through dreams of escape and good fortune. We see women, true to their nature, fighting, supporting, comforting and confronting their identity during a three-month passage to a new and uncertain future. And we see women, determined to shake off the shackles of expectation and male authority.
Best directs with a sensitive appreciation of the historical events and McCarrick's individual characters. She is assisted by Anna Senior's excellent costume designs and Chris Zuber's evocative set design.
Murray Wenham's lighting and Peter Best's music and sound, heightened by the atmospheric use of the Irish music and the forceful drama of the storm scene ideally complement the action of the performance.
It may take audiences some time to tune in to the Irish accents and they might crane to hear the softer moments.
Dialogue was lost during the loud thunderclaps, but hopefully a balance will be found as the season progresses.
Belfast Girls is a lesson that echoes through time to reverberate the voice of women of our age.
The haunting quality of the play's message of survival and resilience and the authentic nature of Echo Theatre's production provide an excellent commendation of the inaugural creative partnership between the new company and The Q.