Patsy Durnin's sympathetic portrayal of the Derry Workhouse takes the audience back in time at The Playhouse
Historian and playwright Patsy Durnin has an absorbing interest in the lives of ordinary working people. His new play, Thirteen Steps – described as a ‘poignant history of the Derry Workhouse’ – features those made poverty-stricken by the Irish Famine.
It follows Durnin’s 2007 production, Tillies, premiered at Derry~Londonderry's Playhouse and revived at the Millennium Forum last year, which was about Derry’s shirt factory women. Durnin describes both productions as ‘docu-dramas’ rather than plays, giving historically-informed depictions of typical incidents and living conditions in the city’s factories and welfare institutions.
Thirteen Steps – the number of steps leading up to the Workhouse door – is set in the years of the catastrophic potato blight in Ireland in the mid to late-1840s, when Derry’s Workhouse was full to overflowing. (The Workhouse building on the Waterside still stands, but its collection of Workhouse artefacts is no longer open to the public.)
When the play opens The Londonderry Poor Law Union Workhouse (to give the monolith its full title), is already overcrowded and understaffed. We see the Connors family from Fahan, newly evicted from their land and suffering from fever and hunger, being admitted as inmates and having the draconian rules of the establishment explained to them.
Notwithstanding the harsh conditions, the inhabitants of Durnin’s Workhouse are anything but cowed by their circumstances and perfectly capable of holding their own with the Matron and the Master. Dickens’ Workhouse, from Oliver Twist, this isn’t.
The women especially form a tight-knit group, with their contraband supplies of ‘snuff’ hidden in their undergarments; they share with each other their dreams of escaping some day to America or Canada.
Durnin’s women, who are the most roundly drawn characters in the production, are full of wit, cheekiness and banter. Their scepticism at the prospect of being ‘shipped off’ to Australia as sheep-farmers wives suggests a fate worse than the Workhouse itself.
There is black humour too, as in Soldier Boy’s (Francis Harkin’s) wooden leg, which, as it belongs to the Workhouse, he will have to hand back if he ever leaves.
The Workhouse, as Durnin presents it, is something of a cross between Colditz and a boarding school. This is a sympathetic portrayal of an institution which, in the author’s view, provided a necessary, if now little appreciated, safety net for the weakest in society
The set is inventive: a revolving circular platform of stark simplicity, which allows a quick transition from one scene to another in the different parts of the Workhouse – the Porter’s room, the stone breaking yard, the Infirmary, the women’s quarters, the Boardroom.
Among the female characters, Blind Rosie (Rachel Melaugh) and Hilda (Greta McTague) are the most effective and assured in acting terms, and ten year-old Roisin O’Doherty makes an impressive acting debut as the young Eileen Connors.
One could nitpick – some of the female performers seem a little too full-fleshed and abounding in energy to have been for years the recipients of the meagre rations described. And a couple of the men wear gold wedding rings – not what you would expect to find on paupers in the Workhouse.
But these are minor flaws in an otherwise commendable production directed by Kieran Griffiths. All the actors, with the exception of Glasgow-born Bill Waters, speak with strong North-West accents, making the setting believable.
Waters is especially strong in the meeting of the Board of Guardians, although his outburst at the end – by accident or design? – seems to lack containment. The music, composed for the production by Kristine Donnan, is especially apt and evocative, its echoes of Gorecki adding atmosphere during scene changes.
Overall, Thirteen Steps is an ambitious production in its attempt to localise the workhouse experience. Not Charles Dickens or even George Sims’ Christmas Day in the Workhouse, but none the worse for that.
Thirteen Steps runs at The Playhouse, Derry~Londonderry until May 17.