‘Factory Girls’ is a character study by Frank McGuinness, a loyal Buncrana-born, Republican from County Donegal. Originally, a lecturer in English, he is now acknowledged as one of Ireland’s greatest living dramatists. McGuinness’s dialogue is never simply ‘written’, but rather ‘crafted’.
This play about survival was inspired by the hard life endured by Frank’s dominant mother. It was first performed in a Derry factory, before opening at the Abbey Theatre in 1982. It is now being presented by the Irish Theatre Players, at the Irish Club Theatre, 61 Townshend Road, in Subiaco. The two-and-a-quarter hour, harsh reality performances have curtain up at 8.00 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings until Saturday 25th November. There is a matinée performance at 2.00 pm on Sunday 19th November.
The scene is a Wednesday morning in 1982.
The first Act takes place in the inspection room of a run-down shirt factory in Donegal. Act Two is the boss’s office. The designer, Claire Wynne, mustered a very good selection of props from the 1980s.
Liz Quigley’s costumes included floral tabards for the workers to wear at their benches. The lack of a specific work uniform emphasised the dire state of the factory. The personal clothing brought a smile, with the return of the ‘Jane Fonda’ leg warmers. In the second Act the ‘girls’’ clothing style captured the era perfectly. Shannon Murphy and her talented Trainsmart make-up team also produced a bouffant, and an old frump hairdo. This attention to the smaller details gives authenticity to scenes.
A minor whinge for the otherwise most efficient stage team; ensure that the clock tells the time that is quoted in the dialogue and not showing two hours later.
Act One – The set’s walls are a scruffy, two-tone green, with the dark area up to shoulder height and lighter green above. This was all of the craze in schools and offices of the day, as the lower section was the maximum Union height for cleaners to reach. There are four worktables, each with an Anglepoise lamp and a stool. The back room had a mountain of white shirts, waiting to be checked and folded.
Act Two – Rohan’s office has a large, metal filing cabinet, two desks, complete with typewriters, and a rotary dial phone. The desk armchairs are more comfortable than those supplied to the workers downstairs. The room door at the rear has glass panels. There is a kitchen / toilet off to the side.
John Spurling was in charge of the sound. The scene opens to the rattling of the sewing machines, most effective and the volume reduced at the correct time. There was a pre-recorded (?) section of Tannoy dialogue that thanks to the skill of the actor (Susan) was most effective. John was also in charge of the fine lighting design and operation.
The women, ‘no, we are GIRLS!’ are working at their benches, checking the stitches in the poor quality garments. Once again, teenage Rosemary (Delia Ward) a lazy colleen, is late and trying her best to avoid working. Soon the craic turns to the decline in the management quality and the sales figures. The new factory manager, Rohan (Jesse Watts) a young upstart, dressed in a superior, pristine white shirt, brings about their main fear; he is trying his best to do a good job in difficult circumstances, but is totally lacking in the social skills and empathy required. The family atmosphere and friendly banter helps the girls cope.
The mother of two sick youngsters, Vera (Caroline McDonnell), who is married to a useless man, is complaining that her eyes are failing with all of the close work. Despite nearing retirement, Una (Hillary Readings), who is an elderly fuddy-duddy, points out how she has been blessed with good near vision; however, trendy Rebecca (Shannon Murphy), who is in her twenties and a part-time hairdresser, tells them both to get their eyes checked.
Even though the middle-aged union rep, Andy Bonner (Ben Small) puts on a tough face, it is not long before the matriarchal figure; Ellen (Susan Lynch) – now in her fifties and who has had a tough, tragic life – puts him in his place. Then we see the lighter side of Ellen, as she mocks young Rosemary about her thinning hair, and suggests an unusual, but the ‘only’ real cure for such a condition. Within minutes the conversation is depressingly back to pay-offs and redundancies.
What will happen to the girls? Is closure a certainty?
The play is directed by the multi-award winning, Ryan Taaffe, who is working with the Irish Theatre for the first time. The result was most impressive. Ryan has selected a magnificent cast, always the wise first step. The initial banter was easy going, and we soon became aware of how closely united the group were; with a genuine interest and care for each other. It was apparent how each contributed to the various situations as the unjust happenings unfurled, and how comradery was their main strength.
In the second Act, for various reasons, the girls’ brave faces breakdown and we discover the depth of their personal traumas. With such a finely intertwined set of storylines, it was essential that every cast member not only knew their initial personality and their final disposition, but that they fully appreciated the types of bonding with each other. This cast were superb; the audience had full empathy with each character. So rich was the writing and clarity of the direction, that soon the audience actually felt like family friends or fellow workers.
Powerful performances, subtly handled. Susan Lynch and Caroline McDonnell genuinely pulled a few heartstrings with their stories.
A simple, but warm story, but with some wonderful performances portraying everything from tragedy to a few belly laughs. MOST enjoyable.