Patsy Durnin's authentic recollection of factory life in Derry~Londonderry is, nevertheless, light on darkness

There is an air of anticipation and sisterly camaraderie in the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry, on the final night of Patsy Durnin's Tillies, which is produced by the Playhouse Theatre.

Directed by Nicky Harley – who performed as one of the original cast when the play was first produced in 2007 – it is an affectionate epitaph to the spirit of the women, girls and small number of men who sewed and sweated, laughed and cried, in all of Derry's shirt factories through the decades.

Tillies and Henderson was the first purpose-built shirt factory in Derry, and opened its doors in 1856. Exporting shirts to countries across the globe, it gained worldwide recognition as the epitome of capitalism in Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Testament to the industrial achievement of William Tillie – and a tribute to the sewing skills of the Derry factory girl – the derelict building was finally demolished on January 4, 2003.

The demolition symbolised the end of the city's shirting-making industry, which, nevertheless, has not been forgotten. Plays have been written, visual and archive exhibitions have been created and showcased, songs have been recorded and celebrated – all part of the fabric of an industry that employed so many of the North West workforce at a given time in history. In this UK City of Culture 2013 year, there are many projects and events that commemorate and celebrate this heritage, and one such tribute is Tillies.

Durnin himself worked as a cutter in Tillies for 22 years, leaving just before its closure in 1976. At the age of 68, he decided to gather all his memories and reminiscences from his fellow workers to write this highly personal and authentic account about life in the Tillie and Henderson shirt factory. It was published in book form by Guildhall Press in 2005, and is now out of print. From that, he developed a script and brought it to stage.

The play opens on the silhouette of a girl moving behind a white cloth backdrop, followed by a chorus of singular voices off-stage – we are in the cuff station area of the factory floor. Four sewing machines, a floor strewn with material cut-offs, walls adorned with patterns await the arrival of the factory girls – Kitty (Maureen Wilkinson), Bertha (Kathy Deehan), Maggie (Maeve Connolly), Rosie (Louise Conaghan), Suzy (Rachel Melaugh), and Lily (Dearbhaile McKinney) – to begin their day of work.

Pleasantries good-humouredly and teasingly exchanged, the factory girls chatter about their daily lives and hardships. They are both young and old, Catholic and Protestant – all facing the same challenges and dilemmas. Inexplicably, they drum their knuckles on the tables – recalling the ‘bin-lid clattering’ that the women-folk took part in on the streets of Derry during the Troubles to warn others of the oncoming British Army. But of course the girls rap their knuckles to get rid of the rats that lurk beneath.

Durnin is not overly concerned with exposing the religious divide, but does so in subtle ways. One touching and humorous scene sees Bertha request permission from Davy the factory manager (Seamus Ball) to leave early so as to partake in the Orange Parade of the Twelfth of July. Her co-workers (who we assume are all Catholics) remove her work stool and, on her return, force her to stand as they sing the Irish National Anthem. But she is not to be outdone, and hangs her sash over her shoulders.

Tillies was like a ‘women’s prison’, but it was also a place of companionship, solidarity, unity, community and spirit. The workforce share secrets and dreams, the excitement of the arrival of the American Navy, sing to keep their spirits up, comfort each other when things were tough. For some, this was the only social life they have.

Most are aware that changes are imminent, and that those changes that will have severe repercussions on their lives. The introduction of time-study management creates divisions. Though it afforded the more ambitious, younger workers the opportunity to be educated and ultimately to forge careers elsewhere, many older, less skilled workers became expendable. Unsurprisingly, every woman begins to fight for her job, and a strike ensues.

Unfortunately, this breakdown of empathy is not effectively recreated, and at this point the play begins to feel disjointed and rushed. Lily, the youngest cast member, for example – who has been excellent up to this point – simply disappears. And while there is a hint of romance between her and Robert, the time management man (played by Andrew Doherty), it is, nevertheless, a distraction.

Perhaps there is too much emphasis on the comedy element of the story, rather than on the hardships endured by the workers, but that is forgivable – after all, good theatre should be entertaining. The audience is predominately female, and largely made-up of former factory girls, and there is many a laugh of recognition amongst them. For them, Durnin's tale is personal. The local cast revel in their Derry accents, making the humour all the more authentic.

Tillies is laugh-out-loud play, yet a little more emphasis on the harsh realities of factory life in Derry would have further enriched this production. The sewing machines remain silent throughout – the ‘factory horn’ is weak and unthreatening. But these were the sounds that punctuated and measured the factory girls' working days, the sounds that perhaps began to drive them mad.

Such technicalities could be worked on, of course, should Tillies tour other venues or make a return to Derry any time soon. For those who missed the play, a recording of opening night will be released on May 6, 2013 priced at £10.00, and will be available from Guildhall Press.