Lay Up Your Ends

Martin Lynch and Charabanc Theatre Company take a trip down memory lane

As fireworks light up the sky to welcome the tall ships to Belfast another piece of history is being performed at the Grand Opera House. 25 years after Martin Lynch's Lay Up Your Ends (his first collaboration with Charabanc Theatre Company) thrilled audiences in 1980s Belfast, the play returns with some weighty theatrical chops at the helm.

Lay Up Your Ends was an innovative piece of theatre in its time, Charabanc's first play and a collaboration between members of the public (who suggested ideas for the piece) and Lynch as writer. In this production Marie Jones reprises her role as Belle, Lynch produces and old hand Ian McElhinney directs. But has Lay Up Your Ends stood the test of time?

The stage has been transformed to resemble York Street Mill in the early years of the 20th century, providing a backdrop to the story of five women engaged in the 1911 mill workers strike - a valiant action that transformed the social history of Belfast in the era of Home Rule and the unsinkable Titanic.

At the time over 18,000 textile workers, mainly women, worked in horrendous conditions in the mills for a pittance. James Connolly, champion of the dock workers after the 1907 Belfast strike, described working conditions thus: '... imagine the stifling, suffocating atmosphere that in a few months banishes the colour from the cheeks of the rosiest half timber and reduces all to one common deadly pallor.'

Harsh new rules forbade workers from talking, singing and even stopping to fix their hair while at work. A vicious system of fines was the final straw for the many poorly paid workers, and a spontaneous strike ensued. Led by the courageous Belle Thompson, eventually almost 2,000 female workers downed tools.

The all-female strike was revolutionary. Inevitably, however, the male-dominated establishment was outraged and with the help of the press the strike was defeated.

Belle, Eithne, Lizzie, Florrie and Mary constitute the cast of Lay Up Your Ends, each with their own troubles. Belle struggles to keep faith in the cause and pleads with the workers not to return too soon. Her second in command, Florrie, a 'blow-in' from the country, fights to keep her siblings fed and housed in the toughest of circumstances.

While Lizzie fears the worst and doubts the validity of the strike from the beginning, Mary is forced to cancel her wedding due to lack of funds, dreaming instead of emulating the stars of the Alhambra she sees on a Saturday night. Meanwhile Eithne attempts to avoid the numerous loan sharks she owes money to, with varying degrees of success.

It's a worthy subject, but have Charabanc done it justice?

There are faults with the piece. Heavy use of the vernacular makes some dialogue difficult to understand for some theatregoers. Sparse scenery and few costume changes - with the actresses each playing several parts - also leads to some confusion. The sound is lacking at times, with some extracts from James Connolly speeches almost inaudible.

Lynch's characters - as ever - rely a little too heavily on Belfast humour, with the severity of their situation underplayed. The threat of unemployment then, as now, wouldn’t necessarily have been eased by a simple, frivolous bus trip to the country. Having said that, Lynch does know how to raise a chuckle or two, especially among the older members of the audience.

25 years after it was first performed, Lay Up Your Ends has a strong resonance. While time may have been kind to the subject matter, however, I fear regular theatregoers may have found the production a little underwhelming.

Multimedia effects, better sound quality and scene changes might have helped to modernise the play for more sophisticated audiences. There is no denying that a quarter of a century ago this work enticed people to the theatre who might not have been there otherwise, but modern audiences, particularly the young, would struggle to engage with the piece.

The main focus of the play is the camaraderie of the workers. As one protagonist states 'You can’t take nothing from nothing'. The characters are happy in the knowledge that they are all as badly off as each other. Marie Jones in the lead role brings professionalism to the ensemble that deserves recognition, with the supporting cast failing to live up to her example. Perhaps a more intimate setting would have added to the atmosphere. A smaller audience may have better luck with the small cast.

This story of villainous employers, back street money-lenders and typical Belfast characters, coupled with song and black humour, came to typify Charabanc’s early works. The play may have lost a little something over the years, but retains just enough drama to make for an enjoyable night out.

Lagan Press recently published a 25th anniversary edition of Lay Up Your Ends, and this run also makes the play available to new audiences. Judging by the crowd at the Grand Opera House, however, nostalgia played a large part in ticket sales. Nevertheless the play does represent an important piece of social history and can easily be enjoyed as a trip down memory lane rather than a biting social satire.

Deborah Douglas