Belfast Girls
Photo courtesy of Curio PR

Grounded in outlook, dominant in performance and intricate in writing, Jaki McCarrick's Belfast Girls, directed by Anna Simpson, earns kudos and heavy resonance by opening an unfamiliar and intensely fascinating fictional doorway to a historical narrative. It is a window to emigration amidst amplified chaos, the perception of a long journey not only as a form of bonding but also as an isolated passage of growth for every individual in it. It's as contradictory as can be, but in a stirring and enduring manner – what McCarrick, Simpson and their gifted cast have done here is successfully wed skilful acting both solo and ensemble to rich themes that understatedly bounce right out at the viewer. In that sense, it joins Anne-Marie Casey and Emily Foran's rather staggering adaptation of Little Women as the kind of entrancing character study that seems just right for our times, a successful blend of the technical, literate and expressive.

Judith (Donna Anita Nikolaisen), Hanna (Leah Rossiter), Sarah (Carla Foley), Ellen (Fiona Keenan O'Brien) and Molly (Siobhan Kelly) are five amongst thousands of Irish females taking passage on ships from Ireland to Australia under the Orphan Emigration Scheme during the 19th century. Known as the titular "Belfast Girls" for their distinctive boisterousness and notoriety, all five carry a mixture of disdain, unease and optimism as they search for at least a semblance of control and stability on board the ship that carries them to their destination. Their temperament, decision-making and actions both as a group and individuals are the cornerstone of the work, and Simpson both starkly and accordingly strengthens the most pointed aspects of McCarrick's script for an effect that is commendable in both switching between and highlighting the dramatic, comedic and therapeutic within a sprawling structure – call it a sort of O Sisters, Where Are Thou? if you must, but with the emphasis on the human element rather than the orchestrated and the fantastical of the Coen brothers' admittedly wonderful Odyssey.

Photo courtesy of Curio PR

What I find bold about Belfast Girls is how wholly and how sensitively its focus on the genuine pain and sporadic relief in the journey is, and how it impacts the perception of joy in its ultimate outcome. We are witness to both the deadening nature in repetition and the explosive frustration in claustrophobia, and the play never hesitates in showing and asking why both would emerge. McCarrick's attention to character and the level of overall performance brings a viewing experience of persuasive pondering and emotive engagement - the question of whether people help one another out of genuine empathy or as a prideful projection of surface level maturity to their peers is just one facet of a very detailed and pressurised exploration of identity, helpfully given interjections of calm and frivolity around Sinead O'Donnell-Carey's very well structured set and by Sophie Cassidy's smart use of lighting. This is an actors' and writer's stage, with every performer shining in their own way - in particular, Donna Anita Nikolaisen handles the challenge of Judith's mindset with commensurate command and Siobhan Kelly brings out Molly's complexities with delicate nuance.

Belfast Girls excels as a snapshot of what happens when the foundational self is not necessarily discarded but irreparably altered by potentially unforeseen and even terrifying circumstance. It is life as an eventual passage to truth through a discomforting but essential lens, a profound breakdown of the faith and expectation in togetherness and aspiration in pursuit of motivation and reason. It functions as a contextual confrontation of the desire for belonging and appreciation, and everything that formulates and builds up to each – an altogether remarkable accomplishment.

Simon Fallaha

Belfast Girls concluded a sold out run at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast on Saturday February 3, and tours until Saturday February 17. For more information on the play, click here.