Throwback Thursday: Derry Girls writer Lisa McGee's playwriting debut Girls and Dolls

Tinderbox returns with a stark and traumatic tale, writes Brendan Deeds

This year’s Belfast Festival included some wonderful theatre, but it was missing an offering from Tinderbox, a company which has produced some of the most diverse and dynamic theatre to grace NI's stages.

Their absence was due to preparations for Lisa McGee's playwriting debut, Girls and Dolls, and it has been worth the wait.

Emma and Clare were best friends when they were 10. In the summer of 1980 they met on the swings and instantly became inseparable. They spent days building treehouses, watching The Wizard of Oz, and experienced the forbidden thrill of shoplifting.

That summer, a young mother and her infant daughter moved into number 14, setting in motion a disastrous chain of events.

Now in their 30s, Emma and Clare struggle to come to terms with what happened. Each has a different memory of that summer as they try to piece together what happened in order to understand what they did and how it has shaped the women they have become.

The mystery of their troubled past unfolds in a series of flashbacks which interweave with the present until the play reaches its dark conclusion.

Terry Loane's multi-level stage works well. Whilst adult Emma (Veronica Leer) and Clare (Mary Jordan) are virtually static, standing on opposite sides of the top level, the actors who play their younger counterparts move around the lower.

This works by suggesting that in the traumatised, the past can be more alive than the present, with a conscious/subconscious duality. However, Jordan and Leer are left with the difficult task of trying to create a sense of tension in their scenes.

As a child, Clare (Bernadette Brown) dominates her friend, but her bravado is armour to hide the hurt inflicted by her parents. In Brown’s performance we see the wounded innocence buried beneath the bully.

Jordan creates the character of adult Clare with fine brush strokes, playing her with a simmering menace. The childhood hurt is still palpable beneath the surface, allowing us to see her as both vulnerable and viperous. Like a broken crystal vase, her damaged innocence has left her dangerous.

Likewise the fawning, submissive child Emma is fully realised in Sarah Lyle’s touching performance, and can still be seen within Leer’s interpretation as the fragile and fretful woman.

As the action alternates between present and past, there is little done to create the sense of the mounting dread which the script suggests. More may have been done especially with regard to the adults' physical performances.

Their static staging along with a storyline which prematurely reveals too much means the tension and suspense are in short supply in a play whose subject matter demands an unnerving, creeping sense of impending tragedy.

Regardless, Girls and Dolls is a valuable and accomplished addition to the Tinderbox canon. It should be praised for the complexity of its characters, the fine performances of its cast and the tough questions McGee’s script poses - is the past ever finished with us, is memory to be trusted, and can we hold children responsible for wrongful deeds - especially if they have been victims themselves?