The Factory Girls

Caitríona McLaughlin's adaptation of Frank McGuinness's play is a City of Culture highlight

It’s a Friday night and while previously workers would have been packing up to go home after a long week spent on the factory floor, we enter the illustrious and recently refurbished City Factory on Patrick Street, Derry~Londonderry, to witness the revival of Frank McGuinness's 1982 play The Factory Girls.

Produced by the Millennium Forum Productions and directed by Carndonagh-born Caitríona McLaughlin, this gritty and historically accurate depiction of factory life in County Donegal tells the story of five women facing the threat of redundancy who take on their boss and the union by staging a lock-in.

We are seated encircling the stage and, even before the drama begins, the scene is set. Shirts line the walls – hanging ceiling lights omit their glare. The cold grey slabs of the Singer sewing machines are silent on the tables, which are surrounded by baskets of material. Maree Kearns's set design couldn’t be more realistic.

Opening to the sounds of David Bowie’s 'Rebel Rebel' (no doubt a nod to the ensuing rebellious nature of the characters and the era), over the drone of the clackity-clack of machines, we are at once part of the action. One-by-one the girls arrive for their daily grind.

The Factory Girls

 

From the onset there is quick-fire ‘taking-the-hand’ bickering and banter that could ‘tar roads’. Tribute to McGuinness's fine script, and McLaughlin's sharp direction, the actors deliver each line as if ‘off-the-cuff’. The repartee concerning Kirk Douglas and ears (a la Van Gogh), Grace Kelly and bad eyes, hair curlers and Veronica Lake is pure magical.

These are strong women – Ellen (Noelle Brown), Una (Stella McCusker), Vera (Lucia McAnespie), Rosemary (Kerrie O’Sullivan) and Rebecca (Cathleen Bradley). All actors are outstanding throughout, and especially so Brown, Bradley and O’Sullivan. There is a rich bond evident between the cast of characters. It is the little idiosyncrasies (like O’Sullivan twirling her hair and reading Bunty) that catch the eye.

The Donegal accents are mostly spot-on, despite the odd slip to a hoarse southern brogue (McCusker) and broad Belfast (McAnespie), but it is the male characters – factory boss Rohan (Sean Donegan) and union rep Bonner (Howard Teale) – who are less convincing.

I expect the boss to be more of a ruthless tyrant, but Donegan's is too soft a portrayal. Perhaps an older actor may have been more fitting in this role. Teale, as the union rep, appears awkward and rigid with an accent I can’t quite place.

The second act, set in a different room within the City Factory, is powerful. Solid on stage and in solidarity, here the women debate and deliberate, sympathise and empathise, are tender and reflective, become courageous yet angry. They arrived at the factory as girls, but have become women.

Highlights include the hilarious emptying of necessities and luxuries from suitcases; the elderly and religious McCusker stir from being just an old biddy to the one with most wisdom; and the emotional heart-to-heart chats between Bradley (as Rebecca) and Brown (as Ellen).

Every detail is meticulous – from the simple use of an electronic cigarette and the rising steam from a flask to the noise of the sewing machines and the blast of the factory horn. The clever use of the City Factory's actual toilet as part of the set, and the dialogue between the boss and the girls behind an adjourning door, adds to the drama of the lock-in situation. And Bowie’s 'Space Oddity' is also ironically fitting: 'And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear / Now it's time to leave the capsule if you dare.'

By far one of the most professional and poignant plays I have seen, The Factory Girls is a must see for all lovers of theatre as it embarks on its current Irish tour. It will be interesting to see how it transforms and translates from the intimate location of a real factory floor. Yet the superb acting, direction, set design and, of course, McGuinness's fine script, should travel well.

The Factory Girls travels to Strule Arts Centre, Omagh on April 29 – 30, Riverside Theatre, Coleraine on May 7, The MAC, Belfast on May 11 – 12, The Burnavon, Cookstown on May 23, and The Market Place Theatre, Armagh on May 24 – 25.

The Factory Girls